Amid the frenzy of what would become the closest championship battle in the history of NASCAR's premier series, it went virtually unnoticed. As Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards traded jabs on and off the track at Texas, Martin Truex Jr. piloted a brand new race car to an eighth-place finish -- his best in Fort Worth in almost two years. While momentum swung among the title contenders at Phoenix, David Reutimann recorded his first top-10 in 17 weeks. And while the racing universe was transfixed by the events at Homestead, Truex quietly finished third -- right behind the two drivers who decided the championship between them.
Given the circumstances, the progress was almost completely overshadowed, lost in a heavyweight championship bout that dominated the final few weeks of the 2011 campaign. But not at Michael Waltrip Racing, which was rolling out its new and clearly more competitive race cars for the first time and laying the groundwork for what would be a major step forward in 2012.
These days, there's no overshadowing the progress being made at MWR. It commands attention, from the positions Truex and new MWR driver Clint Bowyer occupy in the top 10 of the current Sprint Cup standings, to a No. 55 car that's proven competitive whether it's Mark Martin or Brian Vickers behind the wheel. The vehicles at MWR are faster, more balanced and less prone to wild swings in consistency. The development of those cars has fueled the rise of an organization that one year ago seemed to be taking large steps in the opposite direction.
"There's not hardly anything on the car that's the same," said Rodney Childers, crew chief on a No. 55 car shared to this point by Martin and Vickers. "From this time ... last year to now, there's not anything on that entire car that's the same. It's really basically like starting over."
And to a large degree it was.
Teams build their cars off one master chassis, and Childers said top organizations like 10-time champion Hendrick Motorsports revamp that base vehicle every six months or so. MWR, by comparison, was still basing everything off a chassis that had been built in 2009 as recently as the middle of last season. Eventually, that car grew outdated, and performance suffered as a result.
The impact was clear at a three-car operation that mustered just four top-fives between them, and went without a victory for the first time in three seasons. After a few years of creeping up on the elite teams in NASCAR's top division, MWR suddenly seemed to lag well behind.
Last April, that lack of performance began to eat at Childers.
"I started getting pretty irritated and banging my head against the table in many of our meetings," he remembered, "saying, 'We've got to start over. We've got to build a new car. We've got to build all-new suspension. We've got to redo everything.' Of course, that's hard to accept and to say you have to do that. To even say, 'We have to step back and punt' is hard to do. The more and more we got toward that, the more people starting thinking, you know, that's really the right thing."
And so they punted, pouring more efforts into what they hoped would be a brighter 2012 season instead of trying to right a lost 2011 campaign. MWR began holding weekly Tuesday meetings open to anyone in the shop that might have an idea about how to build a better car. The focus was on improving aerodynamics, lowering the center of gravity, and rethinking the vehicle in its totality rather than envisioning it as just a chassis with pieces added on.
Other things happened, too. Lines of communication with manufacturer Toyota became clearer, and Childers struck up a working relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Dave Rogers that stemmed, of all things, from Childers being angry over an accident involving Reutimann and Kyle Busch at Kansas.
It all began happening well before MWR brought in key additions like new director of competition Scott Miller or new crew chief Brian Pattie, who runs things on Bowyer's car. And it brought with it a degree of change that Truex believes affected not only the team's vehicles, but the fiber of the organization as whole.
"I think early last year, at some point, we actually thought our cars were better than they actually were, for some reason," Truex said. "... It was a company-wide thing where we just started doing things different, building new stuff, changing the way we did things. And it really changed our perspective ... we thought we were better than we were, I guess I'm saying.
"It's really been a culture change, I think as a company, to now. No matter how we run, we're working harder than anybody else and trying to be the best. If we run third, we're not happy with that anymore. So, it's fun. It's fun to be a part of that. It's fun to see the enthusiasm around the shop, and everybody wanting to win races and be the best out there. Obviously, it's paid off for us."
That much is evident in the standings, where Truex sits sixth and Bowyer ninth. The No. 55 car, with its array of drivers, ranks ninth in owners' points. MWR's drivers have already combined for more top-five finishes than they had in all of last season, and Truex is riding a streak of eight top-10s in his last 11 starts dating back to last year. That's the kind of consistency that nets Chase berths, and it's the kind of consistency MWR has been noticeably lacking -- until now.
No question, MWR upgraded its personnel with the additions of Bowyer, Martin, Miller and Pattie for this season. But the improvement in the race cars started before those human pieces began to be added, and the increased mechanical performance has allowed MWR to take maximum advantage of that upgraded roster. Truex could feel the difference in the new car the first time he slid behind the wheel. That was last fall at Texas, which, in retrospect, stands as the starting point for the rebirth of this six-year-old franchise co-owned by Waltrip and Rob Kauffman.
"The car just had a good feel to it, and it had speed," Truex said. "The biggest thing we noticed was, in green-flag pit stops during the race, the car was really fast. On new tires, the car had speed. It's not always driving perfect, which they never do, but the car has speed in it. It's easier to be fast even when the car is off. So, it's been easier to work on. And one of the things I've noticed about it that I've liked is it's more user-friendly.
"You don't go to bed on Saturday night worried to death the balance is going to shift 180 degrees from what you had in practice and were happy [with], to when the race starts. So, it's been a little bit more consistent for us and that's been a big key for us this year."
That's a stark difference from past seasons, where MWR cars could vary from race-contending to middle of the pack in consecutive weeks. "No matter how hard you try, it's still a hand-made piece," Miller said. "But I think we've gotten our [quality-control] system down a lot better to where we're a lot more consistent, and know a lot more about what we've got from week to week than probably they have before."
Miller made the move from Richard Childress Racing to MWR the week of last fall's Texas race, arriving the same time as the new cars. Childers said the new vehicles were debuted late last year because the team wanted to get them some track time before the end of the season. Then, they'd know what to fine-tune for the upcoming campaign. Once that was done, the team had to build its fleet for 2012, growing from just a few new vehicles to enough to supply three full-time programs. That's where Miller, known for his organizational acumen, came in.
"A lot of the groundwork was already in place when I walked in the door," he said. "Part of the process is being able to get that much work done, and being efficient in getting it done with limited resources ... compared to Hendrick Motorsports, say. It's relative. So trying to get that much work done for three teams to start the year on all new equipment was really a huge task. I've tried to help coordinate that, and make things more efficient, and push for things with the ownership that I felt we needed to make that process better. That's kind of where I came in."
Drivers pitched in with feedback, much of it positive. Miller, who won six times as a crew chief on the Sprint Cup level, began putting more responsibility in the hands of his lead wrench-turners, which was welcome.
"The thing Scott Miller did was, he came in, he took all that stuff in, and he started listening to the crew chiefs more than what had been going on before," Childers said. "And he said, 'We're going to get this thing to where these three guys are happy with what they're taking to the race track. Because if they're not happy, they don't have any confidence going into the weekend.' He did a real good job of organizing it all, getting the fab shop working with the crew chiefs, getting it all to mesh a little bit, instead of them all being separate departments and things like that. He did real good with that part of it. And then, from a crew chief standpoint, everybody is working together pretty well."
It certainly seems that way, judging from the results.
The team's high-water mark came three weeks ago at Bristol, when all three MWR vehicles finished inside the top five for the first time ever. But it goes beyond one race -- the team's three programs have finished inside the top 10 in 11 of a combined 18 starts this season. It shows week-in and week-out the kind of performance that threatens to win races and secure Chase berths. And if that happens, it will be powered by a vehicle that was overlooked when it debuted during last year's championship hunt, yet may very well play a role in deciding the next one.
"That's where we're at now, is just looking for that next step," Truex said. "So hopefully, we'll be able to get there."