After Clint Bowyer’s first win for Michael Waltrip Racing on Sunday, the owner/driver's organization might be wondering what it could take to win the Sprint Cup championship.
Since 2007, when Waltrip decided to take MWR Cup racing full time, the organization had scored just two wins, both with David Reutimann, before Sunday's NASCAR race at Sonoma. Not only had none of the MWR drivers qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but just one year ago Martin Truex Jr. and Reutimann were 18th and 25th, respectively, in the standings.
Wow, what a difference a year makes.
With help from his friend and co-owner Rob Kaufmann, Waltrip has revitalized his organization. Since late last summer, Waltrip has made sizeable changes, starting with the addition of Scott Miller as executive vice president of competition. Drivers Bowyer and Mark Martin, along with crew chief Brian Pattie, have been added to the roster. Bowyer, Martin and Pattie were in limbo last season until Waltrip brought the three on board.
“It means a lot,” Pattie said. “It means a lot to me, I was in the same boat (Bowyer) was. He lost his ride and I lost my job.”
“This is a place for refugees,” Waltrip interrupted. “These two didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Now, “these two” could be making a run for the Chase.
Bowyer and Pattie have clearly made the most of the situation. Pattie knew Bowyer could make an impression at Sonoma if he just had the right car. Pattie scoured the existing inventory and discovered Marcos Ambrose's old chassis from two years ago. The driver had led 35 of 110 circuits with the car before shutting off the ignition to save fuel and then being unable to maintain pace for the restart. The car’s pedigree was perfect for Pattie to tune on.
Bowyer qualified sixth and led 71 of the final 88 laps. Despite taking a beating from Kurt Busch in the closing laps and a late charge from Tony Stewart, the dirt tracker from Kansas kept his composure at the end – and even surprised himself.
“I just looked up and Jeff Gordon is sitting there on the wall, won this race many times, he's a champion of this sport and I just beat him,” Bowyer said. “I'm telling ya, I passed him. I beat him. You have no idea, a young racer from Kansas, you don't forget stuff like that. “
Especially not after the last few months.
Late last season, after six years with team owner Richard Childress, Bowyer was without a sponsor for 2012 – and without a ride. His situation in the free-agency market was stalled as Carl Edwards waited until August to announce his decision on his own future plans. By then, rides were few. But Waltrip made it clear that there was a place at MWR for Bowyer and that the company was committed to stepping up the program.
In just 16 starts this season, the combination of Bowyer and Pattie has posted one win, three top fives, nine top 10s and jumped to seventh in the points standings.
Throughout Bowyer’s transition in jobs, he never lost his resolve.
“Just unbelievable to be able to - at this point in my career - to get with a new bunch of people.” Bowyer said. “Very nerve-racking times in the wintertime. Basically kind of lost my ride at RCR, walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns, and I had a lot of confidence in what was going on.
“I still had confidence in myself. Michael, Rob Kaufmann, everybody involved with MWR, paired me with Brian Pattie and paired me with a lot of good people and that's what it takes to be successful in any good business and NASCAR racing is no exception. It's all about surrounding yourself with good people and we certainly have that.”
Despite problems in the closing laps for teammate Martin Truex Jr., who led twice for 15 circuits and finishing 22nd, the two Waltrip cars are comfortably seventh and nine in the points standings with just nine points separating their Nos. 15 and 56 teams.
Is it too early to start contemplating a championship run?
“Come ask me around Richmond,” Pattie said. “You got to be in the Chase first. But today helps obviously with the wild-card situation and points. The last four to six weeks have been real good for us. If we continue to go down this route, we have some good racetracks for him – Daytona, Loudon – and I have Indy circled.”
Pattie chuckles. Indy is the track where Earnhardt Ganassi Racing sent him on sabbatical last year after four seasons as Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew chief. But Pattie and Bowyer have a new home now – one that will likely house a lot more hardware down the road.
The Fords qualified well at Sonoma, but keeping up with track conditions was difficult for the Blue Oval crews on Sunday.
After qualifying fourth, Greg Biffle battled a loose car throughout the race to post a seventh-place finish. Biffle capitalized on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s late-race misfortunes and moved into second in the points standings.
Still, Biffle believes there is room for improvement with the team’s road-course program. His Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth, the current points leader, and Carl Edwards finished 13th and 21st, respectively.
“We didn’t have a enough forward drive to turn the way we needed,” Biffle said. “We need to work on our road-course program a little bit.”
Polesitter Marcos Ambrose was dominant when the race started but also couldn’t gain the necessary grip he needed to keep up with the racetrack. Despite leading the first 11 laps, Ambrose could only muster an eighth-place finish at the end.
“We really missed it,” Ambrose said. “I just feel bad for my Stanley team. We did a good to recover and get a top-10 out of it. We will take it and move on.
“We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we missed it for the race. We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price.”
AJ Allmendinger had Kurt Busch’s winning car from the last Sonoma race, but it was clear the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil had a decidedly different strategy.
Busch won with two pit stops in 2011. This year, the team short-pitted Allmendinger on Lap 19. After Allmendinger drove through traffic into the top 10, the team pitted him again on Lap 49 – with 61 of the advertised 110 laps remaining.
That’s when Allmendinger received the bad news — he was two laps short of fuel to drive the distance of the race.
“Why did we cut it so close then?” Allmendinger asked after he restarted 26th.
He moved up to 15th place when the first caution came out on Lap 82.
Allmendinger was one of 15 cars that opted to pit during the yellow-flag period. He lined up 15th and salvaged a ninth-place finish.
“It was a pretty good day for the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge team,” Allmendinger said. “I was happy with the way we drove. I didn’t make a lot of mistakes and cost us anything. The car was really amazing in some spots and then there were spots where it just didn’t react. The car was really good in Turns 9 and 10. After 10, I could just kill the field in the hairpin, but I couldn’t get off the hairpin worth a darn.
“We weren’t a race-winning car today. We had solid weekend. We knew what our weaknesses were coming into the weekend and it showed on race day. We got everything out of the car that we could.”
0: Top-10 finishes on a road course for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 23rd on Sunday after a late-race wreck dumped him from 13th on the final restart.
2: Cautions at Sonoma — a record for the race.
9: Top-10 finishes in 14 races at Sonoma for second-place Tony Stewart.
17: Top-10 finishes in 21 starts at Sonoma for Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth despite running out of gas on Lap 71.
Kurt Busch on the tenor of the race: "It felt like a genuine gentleman’s road race, but I wasn’t in the back."