From a competitive standpoint, it was a great leap forward.
Michael Waltrip has been fielding full-time cars at NASCAR's premier level since 2007, and before last season had never seen one of them place higher than 16th in final points. Then came 2012, when two of his drivers qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and one came close to winning it.
The growth occurred seemingly overnight, fueled by a solid upgrade in personnel and a vastly improved race cars, and over the course of a single season it vaulted Michael Waltrip Racing from a bit player to the class of the Toyota fleet. Martin Truex Jr. finished 11th in the standings. Clint Bowyer won three races and was runner-up to champion Brad Keselowski. Even part-timer Mark Martin finished higher than four drivers who ran the full schedule.
It was the feel-good story of last season, a testament to patience and perseverance, a reward for a two-time Daytona 500 champion who kept at it even during some dark early days when everything seemed to be falling apart. MWR made huge strides last season, and now tiptoes along the periphery of the sport's elite. After that, what can the organization possibly hope for as an encore?
The team owner has an idea.
"We have to win more races than we did last year. That's certainly our goal, to win more," Waltrip said. "And if we have two cars that can race for the championship, that's all you can ask for. ? At Daytona and at Charlotte (testing), our teams appeared to be on plane with the best, and so we just hope to expect to win more races than we did last year and contend for the championship again."
Although the difficult task of finding yearlong consistency has clearly been achieved at MWR, the team's two full-time drivers still have some gaps to close. Truex, the stalwart of the MWR organization, is still looking for his first Sprint Cup race victory since 2007. And Bowyer, who wedged himself into championship contention a few times during his days at Richard Childress Racing, is still looking to become a factor in the season's final event.
As far as the No. 15 team is concerned, there are no glaring weaknesses -- Bowyer felt his biggest shortcoming last year was qualifying, which was greatly improved in the Chase. He was clearly at his best at the end of the season, his only blemishes in the playoff being crashes at Talladega and Phoenix, which "gives me the confidence going into this new year that we're going to be just fine and pick up where we left off," he said.
Scott Miller, MWR's vice president for competition, doesn't think there's any specific area where Keselowski had an edge over Bowyer last season. "They performed just that little bit better," he said. The driver can boil the difference down to one race.
"Talladega. That was the one race for me that I wish I had back," said Bowyer, who lost 15 points to Keselowski in that event, and ultimately fell 39 short of the title. "Two laps to go, I was leading the thing, and made a couple of bad moves and it caught me in a bad spot and I got wrecked. ? Had I inched through that thing, or backed off, or rode in the back, or did something and kind of got through it, I think I could have overcome that. But that big a deficit, I don't think you could overcome it."
For Truex, the goal is getting back to Victory Lane. He had some opportunities to snap his five-year winless skid last season -- most notably at Kansas, where he led 173 laps before finishing second -- but is still trying to become a consistent winner. He looks back at how Bowyer won some races on fuel mileage last year, and wonders if a dash of aggressiveness might be the missing link.
"I think there were opportunities for us to take chances to maybe roll the dice a little bit that, looking back on it, might have worked out," Truex said. "It's something you just have to have confidence in. You have to have confidence in yourself. We've seen Clint be able to win two races on fuel mileage. The fact of the matter is, we could have done the same thing. We were running right with him both of those times. So you need to have that confidence, you need to have that experience."
Easier said than done. Clearly Truex has hit on something that's allowed him to find the consistency needed to make the Chase, and he doesn't want to compromise that by being risky. And crew chief Chad Johnston is an engineer who is more calculating by nature. Becoming more aggressive might take nudging Johnston out of his comfort zone, and force crew chief and driver alike to have total confidence in whatever decision is made.
"I think that's something we have to find," Truex said. "It's something that's going to take us some time."
But Miller, a former crew chief who's won seven races at NASCAR's top level, doesn't know if aggression in race calling is the answer. "That's kind of a hard thing to quantify, because sometimes aggressive is not what wins the race, and sometimes aggressive is what wins the race. I think it's just a matter of ending up making the right call in however the situation plays itself out," he said. "Usually the race isn't won by the last pit call. It's usually a series of events leading up to that."
It all comes down to assessing options on the fly, he said, and very quickly being able to decide what might put a car in the best position at the end. But there are other factors at work as well -- meaning that even if Bowyer and Truex employed the exact same strategy, they could still wind up with different results.
"You can ask probably any organization, and their three cars probably don't get the same fuel mileage," Miller said. "Driving style really plays into the fact of how much fuel you burn, and unfortunately Martin doesn't have as many options in the fuel mileage race as Clint."
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