Three years ago, Michael Waltrip tried his hand as an owner in the Sprint Cup Series. His organization's debut didn't go very well. He was penalized for a rules infraction before he ever ran a race, qualified for only 14 of 36 races in 2007 and darn near shuttered the operation before it ever got off the ground.
Fast forward three years and Michael Waltrip Racing is an organization on the rise. It has two wins under its belt, signed the biggest-name free agent in Martin Truex Jr. prior to this season and for awhile looked like it might qualify one of its two drivers in this year's Chase.
Yahoo! Sports talked to Waltrip about his team's progress, about his career as a driver and, oh yeah, the Justin Bieber concert he recently took in with his 12-year-old daughter.
1. Y! Sports: How was Justin Bieber?
Waltrip: That was an experience. He looked like a young Austin Powers. He had on this suit and dark hair. I thought I was looking at Austin.
He began to sing and dance around, and my daughter is 12 and she thought it was about the coolest thing she'd ever seen. So, I was captivated by her and enjoyed the experience.
The music was good, I thought. I liked listening to him. I loved the way he performed; he was really entertaining. If you just take out the 20-some-thousand screaming girls, it was actually a pleasant experience. The screams were a bit over the top, I'd say. It was amazing how loud that was. It sounded like a tea kettle going off.
2. Y! Sports: OK, seriously now. Did you expect to have a driver in the Chase this season?
Waltrip: Yeah, we did. We raced up on the edge of the Chase last year. David late in the going had a real shot at making the Chase. We knew our cars were better going into the 2010 season. I think they have performed at a level that is better than we did in 2009. But we've just had some mechanical failures. Some engine problems early in the season and then the aftermath of those engine problems was to make sure they didn't blow up anymore and sometimes when you do that you don't have quite the power that you need. We spent a couple months early in the year dealing with that, and that really put a dent in our Chase hopes.
But, even through that, as late as Dover or along in there, Martin Truex had gotten to 12th in points and looked like a guy that could really contend for a Chase spot because his car was running so well and he was doing such a good job. But then a couple of crashes took finishes away from us that would have been really, really good. A great example is Sonoma, where Martin had run in the top three all day long, but had some issues at the end, crashed out and finished 40th or something.
We expected to be in the Chase. I think we contended for Chase spots throughout the summer. That certainly didn't come to be, and that's disappointing for us. But, obviously we need to win, and that's what David was able to do at Chicago. Both cars are within shouting distance of 13th, and that's about our max potential. And we're all geared up to finish out the 2010 season and hopefully finish with both of them tied for 13th at the end of the year and that's our goal.
Y! Sports: Is there some satisfaction that you're even being asked about the Chase considering you're still a very young organization?
Waltrip: There is, somewhat, but the most important thing to me about Michael Waltrip Racing and where we are is the ground we've gained – how much progress we've made as an organization. We could have very well been out of business before we even got started given the way the 2007 started – the races we missed and just the lack of performance. We went into '08, made all the races, and started to have some runs where we contended. Then in '09 David won in Charlotte. Our cars throughout the year, especially David and Marcos Ambrose, they were able to run up front and both of them had a shot to win at Texas late in the year. So we made great progress in '09.
And if I've ever done anything that was halfway smart, that was in February of '09 when I told the world – anybody that would listen – "Look, if I don't perform as a driver, if I don't perform at a level that David and Marcos do, then I'm not going to hang around and drive these cars. I'm not here to just occupy a seat. If I can't win, I don't want to do it. And if I can't win, that isn't acceptable for Michael Waltrip Racing. We have to get to victory lane for Toyota and our sponsors."
So I think it made people take notice, the drivers who were looking to do something different in 2010. Made them keep their eyes peeled on how we were doing as an organization and how I was doing as a driver. In the middle of '09 I decided I wasn't going to drive again in 2010. I just wasn't performing for whatever reason like I wanted to and I wasn't going to hang around just to be hanging around. That's when talks really heated up with Martin, and we got him to drive the Napa car, and we have three guys racing our cars who can go out, race for wins and compete.
3. Y! Sports: Why did you want to get into ownership?
Waltrip: When Toyota came racing in the trucks in '04, I had a Nationwide team that we ran from behind my house out in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina. It was a part-time team, but we were doing good. We won some races and our cars always performed well.
And when they came racing in '04, they wanted to know if wanted to run a truck team. I told 'em I couldn't. I was a Cup driver and my Nationwide team was basically an extension of that. DEI built my engines, and I was a Chevy guy and that would be a conflict of interest. But I told them I know somebody who would be interested in a truck team and be a part of the Toyota family and that's my brother Darrell. I hooked those guys up. Darrell started owning trucks and racing with those guys.
As my future at DEI became uncertain in the middle of '05, and I began to wonder what I might do in '06 and beyond, I was talking to my brother and he told me that Toyota was going to come Cup racing in '07 and maybe I should look to be a part of that somewhere in some way shape or form.
That was interesting to me because I've always been a race car driver and always been a part of this sport. But you can only drive for so long. Eventually you're going to have to retire, unless you're Mark Martin. I thought it would be a great way for me to continue to be involved in the sport. And I wanted to help Toyota come Cup racing.
4. Y! Sports: As a team owner, would you be in favor of a franchise system?
Waltrip: The broad answer to that is yes. The tight answer, the details of it, is certainly very complicated to try to figure out. Just using the "f" word and saying we want a franchise system, that doesn't work. Racing is about performance, and just having a franchise system doesn't guarantee success.
I know the folks from NASCAR are very smart and believe in this sport and the owners that make up this sport. I think that there is a solution there and we'll work toward finding it. But I would love to hear NASCAR's thoughts and what they believe is our future and not so much what I think.
5. Y! Sports: Are you ready to be retired from driving?
Waltrip: I get to drive every now and then. I'm going to run Talladega in a couple of months, and I'm going to run the '11 Daytona 500. So I've not retired. I just got back from Belgium. I went over there to run the 24 Hours of Spa with my partner in Michael Waltrip Racing, Rob Kaufman, and we had a good time. So I'm happy about that. I'm happy where I'm at with my driving because mentally, for whatever reason, I wasn't into doing it every week anymore. I don't know why that is because I love racing. I think I had just been beat down from not performing like I expected to.
When I drove for DEI in 2005, I didn't win any races, but darn, that was the best season of my career. I loved driving Tony Eury Jr.'s cars.
But then when we started our own deal, going to Bill Davis Racing in '06, then driving our own cars in '07 that weren't competitive, I think it just hurt. It was too painful to ever recover from. Therefore, I just decided I didn't want to do it anymore if I couldn't win and show consistent signs of winning.
6. Y! Sports: Are you satisfied when you look back on your career?
Waltrip: I certainly hoped to have accomplished more than I did, but I'm certainly proud of what I did. I'm proud of the fact that only Mark Martin, Richard Petty and me have started more than a thousand of these [NASCAR] races. Those are certainly accomplishments that I am proud of.
I don't believe that anybody tried any harder than I did. I don't believe that anybody was able to have any more passion than I did.
There are a bunch of things that I'm proud of. When some kid comes up to me and says that I was his favorite and he loved watching me, that's something that warms my heart.
I guess the answer to that question is yes and no. I wish I could have done more and accomplish more, but I certainly am very aware that there's not many people that have accomplished as much as I did.
7. Y! Sports: What's your favorite restaurant on the NASCAR circuit?
Waltrip: Probably St. Elmo [in Indianapolis]. I like going to Indy and downtown Indy, and certainly eating at St. Elmo's. I would put that at the top of my list.
8. Y! Sports: What's the most frivolous thing you spend money on?
Waltrip: Over the years, it's been on building [retaining] walls or ponds at my house. I'm a sucker for a nice wall. I got a guy that says, "I can put a wall right there," I say, "Really, when can you start? That sounds awesome."
I build ponds and caves and walls. I like landscaping. I want it to be pretty around my house outside. So, in general I would say landscaping.
9. Y! Sports: For the past three years, you and one of your sponsors, Best Western, have run a promotion where you swap jobs with a fan. If you hadn't gotten into the racing business, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
Waltrip: Well, I always wanted to be a weatherman because they could be wrong a lot and still keep their jobs. And I lost some races back in the day and I kept my job, so I thought I'd be cut out to be a weatherman.
But I've had so much fun in the Best Western fan swap, getting to do what other folks do. Whether it was when I went to Texas to help a guy with his car collection, or last year when I went down to be a stay-at-home dad in South Carolina. Those relationships that I've forged while doing these appearances are still strong today. I talk to the Murrays who live in Texas about racing and him coming to races. And then the folks that live in South Carolina, they're my friends as well. We keep up with each other on Facebook.
So, it's not only a chance to enjoy a fun promotion with Best Western, but it raises some great money. The money that we raise through the fan-swap auction goes to World Vision. They're Best Western's official charity partner. They dedicate themselves to alleviating poverty and injustice among families around the world.
You can go to www.auctionjam.com/fanswap to bid on me coming to do your job.
The winner of the auction this year gets to come to MWR. We're going to have lunch, go down to Showtime and watch me tape my show. Hang out with David Reutimann. Then take them to the Richmond race where they'll be a team member. After that, I'll go to their house or work and do whatever the hell they tell me to.
9 ½ The one thing I want fans to know about me is …
Waltrip: That I'm a race fan, too. The sport has consumed my whole life. When I was born, Darrell was 16 years old and he was off racing. I've been chasing around cars ever since then.
- Michael Waltrip Racing