RICHMOND, Va. -- There was a time when no one thought Michael Waltrip could win as a driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, but he proved folks wrong.
There was a time when Michael Waltrip wasn't sure if he could pull off being an owner in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. But now he's proven himself wrong on that count as well.
When the rain finally quit falling and the mud puddles settled following Saturday night (and Sunday morning's) Federated Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, driver Clint Bowyer was the winner on the race track. But Waltrip was one of the big winners off it.
Waltrip fields the No. 15 Toyota that Bowyer drove to Victory Lane -- well, figuratively, as Bowyer ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag and actually had to walk there. It was Bowyer's second win of the season and the second time he had cut it so close on fuel at the end that his car ran out of gas while he was attempting to execute his victory celebration.
"That's like two or three times that I've won I've walked into Victory Lane, so I'm just going to make that my deal," a grinning Bowyer said as the champagne flowed around him. "Whether it's out [of gas] or not, I'm just going to park it out there [on the track] somewhere and walk in here."
It has been no walk in the park for Waltrip to get to this point as a car owner, but Bowyer's win was especially significant because it also marked MWR's first foray into the Chase for the Sprint Cup that determines the season's champion. And Bowyer, the sixth Chase seed, won't go in alone. He is joined by MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr., who hasn't won a race this season (or any since 2007, when he won the only one of his Cup career), but has been consistent enough to earn the No. 10 seed.
"I'm so proud of what we've put together with the people we have," Waltrip said. "And that's what's it's all about is people."
The MWR family
To get to this celebratory point, Waltrip had to endure some low points. He began his career as a serious full-time Cup owner fielding multiple teams in 2007 -- and promptly got into all kinds of trouble at the season-opening Daytona 500, where the car he was supposed to drive in the race was found to have an illegal substance in the engine designed to boost performance. That marked the beginning of a long season in which his cars struggled to make races.
It wasn't until 2009 that an MWR car driven by David Reutimann finally won a race in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600. Reutimann won again a year later -- but until this season, that was pretty much it as far as highlights for the organization. Of course, Waltrip considered it a highlight that he had merely survived as an owner for that long, thanks to a partnership he formed toward the end of that first troubled season with Rob Kauffman, who also provided a much-needed infusion of cash.
"In 2007, when we started this team, I made it all the way to March till I figured out I was broke. That was pretty good," Waltrip said. "I met Rob in April. He bought half of the team in October. Since then, we've just been making steady progress."
This season, getting not just one car in the Chase for the first time but two, has represented not only steady progress but a quantum leap in the right direction. Waltrip credits the addition of Bowyer, who joined MWR after previously spending his entire NASCAR career with Richard Childress Racing, but also a number of others.
That includes competition director Scott Miller, who also came over from RCR; and Bowyer's crew chief, Brian Pattie, who came over from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. And Brian Vickers, who has driven brilliantly in part-time stints in the No. 55 car. But maybe the most important addition of all was veteran Mark Martin, who drives the No. 55 MWR Toyota only part-time but has been around to pretty much offer full-time advice to all the drivers and crews all season long.
"Over the last year, just the addition of Clint, the addition of Brian, this team, Mark Martin -- the job he's done for us -- everybody's just rallied together," Waltrip said. "It's just a really
great working atmosphere. I'm thankful."
Asked what Bowyer's team might have in store for the rest of the Chase field over the next 10 races, Pattie grinned broadly and replied simply, "Better watch out."
Indeed. This is a team catching its stride at precisely the right time, capable of winning again at virtually any track in the Chase.
|7.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2,003|
|10.||Martin Truex Jr.||2,000|
Perhaps more importantly, it proved Saturday night that it is more than capable of overcoming adversity. Bowyer not only nearly ran out of fuel at the end, but earlier in the night he and Juan Montoya got into each other and Bowyer had a cut tire go down, causing him to spin shortly thereafter. Although Bowyer was angry at the time for being raced so hard by Montoya, who was not on the lead lap, he later credited the incident for helping him win the race because it forced him to pit out of sequence of the rest of the leaders.
During the subsequent pit stop on Lap 236, Pattie made sure the crew packed enough fuel in the car to at least give them the option of attempting to make it to the end without another stop.
"God bless Juan Pablo," Bowyer said. "It was stupid, really. I don't know how many laps down he was; I know he was at least one, and we were running second or third there and he just got into us and knocked my left rear [tire] down. But, luckily, I got spun out down there, got the caution and didn't go a lap down and that was the thing that won us the race. You never know. You never give up in this sport."
True enough. It was the same mantra NASCAR officials were no doubt muttering to themselves after they endured three rain delays to get the Saturday/Sunday race in, which in the end proved to be the right thing to do, if far from the easiest. It set up an exciting end and allowed those trying to race their way into the Chase, such as Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, to settle it on the track within the parameters that already had been set.
It's the same mantra being repeated every day by Bowyer's teammate, Truex Jr., who has been "lightning fast" according to Waltrip and is counting the minutes until he can finally return to Victory Lane himself and perhaps make some noise himself during the upcoming Chase.
"I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot
of people expect us to do much," Truex said. "It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our
NAPA Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing."
And it's the same mantra Michael Waltrip has lived by since nearly going broke during the first year of his full-time Cup operation.
"I'm obviously really happy with having two cars in the Chase," Waltrip said. "My inspiration for having a team from the beginning was Dale Earnhardt. I always wanted to have a team like Dale had. So anytime something goes good, I always think about what all he meant to me. We're thankful."
And they're not done.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Michael Waltrip
- Clint Bowyer