As Waltrip walked up the tunnel leading out of Bristol Motor Speedway back on March 23, 2007, his blue NAPA firesuit looked deflated as the tall frame that filled it sagged around the shoulders. With his gaze cast downward, it appeared as if the weight of the responsibilities Waltrip was carrying in his first season as an owner-driver was literally weighing him down.
It turned out that Waltrip’s hunch was right — the next day in qualifying, he failed to make the field for the fourth straight week, extending a streak of DNQs that eventually lasted until the Cup race in Dover in early June. Out of the three cars Michael Waltrip Racing brought to Bristol in the spring of 2007, only one made it into the Food City 500 — Dale Jarrett qualified 30th, but crashed out to finish 42nd.
However, when Waltrip walks down that tunnel and into BMS for the first practice session this morning, he will do so with his head held high. After putting two cars into the Chase last season and fielding a third entry that won four poles and notched 16 top-10 finishes with Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers sharing the driving duties, the lean times appear to be in the rearview mirror for MWR.
“It’s just special to see it all come together,” Waltrip said. “Obviously we had a rough start here at MWR. It was very humbling and very difficult, and yet we survived. And in 2012, we prospered.
“It’s a great feeling to know that a lot of the people here today were part of the team in 2007 when we started and they’re still here today.”
The turnaround didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it came about through years of identifying the right people and putting them in the right places inside the walls of Waltrip’s race shop.
The first key acquisition for Waltrip was Rob Kaufmann, who came in as a 50-50 partner to help provide proper financing for the team. While Waltrip’s name is on the building, Kaufmann’s fingerprints can be seen all over the operation.
Waltrip said he’s always seen eye-to-eye with Kaufmann, and credits their good working relationship for the success MWR has been able to achieve.
“First of all, he’s a dear friend of mine. Being able to be partners with somebody you respect and you enjoy being around, that’s probably the most important factor in our success,” Waltrip said. “People know the things I do well, and people know the things Rob does well. That makes it just a great relationship.”
Vickers, who was hired to drive on a part-time basis last season and racked up five top-10 finishes in eight starts, said the partnership between Waltrip and Kaufmann couldn’t be any better.
“Michael is great with sponsors and he’s very motivating to a lot of people,” Vickers said. “And ultimately, as a leader of our team, that’s important.
“Now Rob, he brings his own special gifts to the table,” Vickers continued. “He’s really good on the finance side, the business side, and giving the sponsors more in that regard. He’s very good at recognizing talent.
“I think them, as a team, they both have a lot of qualities that would make a good owner on their own, but they definitely have their special areas where they excel, and they happen to complement each other.”
After years on building a solid foundation of people extending from the fabrication shop to the front office, MWR finally had a breakthrough season in 2012. With Scott Miller heading up competition, Martin Truex Jr. was joined by Martin, Vickers and Clint Bowyer in MWR’s stable of drivers.
The results were astounding. Bowyer won three races and finished second in the Sprint Cup points standings. Truex made the Chase and finished with 19 top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
Suddenly, Waltrip’s race team that got off to such a humble start in 2007 was being mentioned in the same breath as Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing.
Waltrip is quick to point out that the group of people he and Kaufmann have assembled are the key to MWR’s success.
To that end, the co-owners did a phenomenal job of keeping most of that group together over the offseason in a sport where success always draws rival team owners with job offers and checkbooks in hand.
“I think people just enjoy coming to work,” Waltrip said of the retention his team enjoyed over the offseason. “And when you’re successful on Sunday, and it’s fun to come back to work on Monday, that’s the key to holding anything t o g e t h e r. ”
From a driver’s perspective, Truex said working for Waltrip has been an amazing experience.
“I think the biggest thing we enjoy about Michael as our owner is he’s a racer,” Truex said. “He’s been a driver for a long time and he understands, being a driver, what we go through and what we need.”
As a driver, Waltrip admitted that it will be tough to show up this weekend without his firesuit. But with so much recent success at BMS, he said it won’t be so tough to sit on the sidelines.
Last March, all three of Waltrip’s cars finished in the top five, and last August, Vickers had a shot to win before settling for a fourth-place finish with Bowyer (7th) and Truex (11th) running strong again as well.
Now Waltrip’s goal is to finally cash in and pick up a win at the half-mile track that has been so good to him in recent years. If that happens, he may be carrying a trophy on his next walk up that tunnel.
“Obviously it’s all clicking well,” Waltrip said. “I can’t wait to get up there this weekend and see where we’re at, because I feel real confident.”