Every time Michael Waltrip has faced the very real possibility of closing his race shop, he’s found a way – sometimes against his own best wisdom – to forge ahead.
His current collection of rejects and renegades not only has put Michael Waltrip Racing on solid ground, they’re winning races and contending for a championship. Both of his fulltime drivers – Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. – are in the top 10, which would qualify them for the Chase for the Championship.
His third team is anchored by Mark Martin, but others, including Waltrip himself, have taken turns behind the wheel.
Waltrip’s infectious personality is one reason why he’s been able to enjoy long-term relationships with sponsors like NAPA, Aaron’s and 5-Hour Energy. Another key to success was adding Rob Kaufmann as a partner.
However, the biggest reason is he’s learned to get out of the way.
“Well, I give Andy Graves (at Toyota Racing Development) a lot of credit any time I’m asked about where we are today,” Waltrip said after Bowyer won Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway. “The reason for that is simple: I went to him in January of 2011 and I said, ‘Are our cars as good as Job Gibbs’ cars?’ He said, ‘No, they are not, because you don’t trust our process. Your people don’t believe in … your direction is not to follow us.’
“I said, ‘Well, we are changing directions, buddy, and we are going to start following you.’ ”
The same goes for the people inside his own shop.
“To say that we’re going to take him out of the mix, that would just be wrong,” Truex said. “He’s done a very good job of putting people in the right places, letting them do their job, not micro-managing, not telling people they are doing things wrong or things aren’t good enough. He’s really done a nice job or just letting people do what he hires them to do.”
The turnaround also involved adding Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie. Bowyer was forced out at Richard Childress Racing by a lack of sponsorship; Pattie was fired last year as Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew chief at Chip Ganassi Racing.
They brought a new level of expertise – and attitude – to the team that’s affected everyone else.
“That’s something I’ve never been able to do before,” Bowyer said. “I’ve had good teammates and I’ve had good stuff, but never like this at this magnitude. This is a young group. Michael stuck it out and I’m telling you, he’s fixing to reap the benefits. He’s worked hard.”
One thing that separates Waltrip from other teams is the way he deals with his sponsors.
He expects his drivers, crew chiefs, marketing people and other officials to create personal relationships. His dealings with corporate CEOs isn’t just business. It’s personal.
And it’s catching everyone’s attention in the garage area.
“It’s impressive,” fellow team owner/driver Tony Stewart said. “Michael started that organization from scratch and every year they just get better and better. This year, they have been solid everywhere they have gone. Obviously their off-season, they were very productive and gained more than a lot of the other teams I think from that standpoint.
“You know, it’s cool to see a guy like Michael get results like this finally.”
Bowyer is seventh in the Sprint Cup Series standings heading into Saturday night’s race at the Kentucky Speedway. Truex is ninth with eight top-10 finishes. The third car has a combined three poles and seven top 10 finishes, including a fourth-place effort last Sunday by Brian Vickers.
“I feel like we’ve proven that we’re not a flash in the pan,” Truex said. “We’re a consistent front-runner, a guy that should be able to contend week in and week out.”
Martin prolonged his retirement – again – for the opportunity to drive one of Waltrip’s cars. He was surprised there was a lot more to his new boss than his playful demeanor.
“Usually when you have someone that is really creative, they’re a little bit different and Michael is a little bit different,” Martin said. “Michael is smarter than I realized. He is, he’s very smart guy, very bright, very creative and I’m enjoying driving for an owner/driver because that’s different than I’ve done in the past.”
It’s that difference that’s finally made Michael Waltrip Racing a contender – even if it often went against conventional wisdom.