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Waltrip teammates in top form at Bristol
Offseason changes at Michael Waltrip Racing paid off with the company’s first occurrence of top-five finishes for all three cars in a single race Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Martin Truex Jr., who finished second to Brad Keselowski in August, led the charge with a third-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race, followed by team newcomers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, who is sharing the No. 55 entry with Mark Martin.
Truex, the only driver left on the roster from last season, qualified 15th. But on the first caution, drawn by contact between Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith, Truex and Vickers’ teams were among seven cars that elected not to pit and stayed out for track position. The two MWR teams stayed with the same plan on the fifth and final caution on Lap 479 of the 500. Given the hard composition of the tires, both decisions paid off.
“We've come a long way in the last 10 or 15 races -- we've had a really consistent, really good race team,” said Truex, who moved to fourth in the points standings. “We've got a lot of confidence.
“For us, it was a good day. We were up and down. We were off on the middle part of the race, but we kept digging and worked hard on it. We got back up to fifth, sixth, seventh right there before that last caution and stayed out. That was the call of the race. Just want to thank (crew chief) Chad (Johnston), thank everybody on the NAPA team, the NAPA car and we'll see what happens -- go to California and try to get to Victory Lane. We're getting close.”
The transition at MWR started last summer. Johnston came on the No. 56 team in June. MWR parted ways with principles Cal Wells and Steve Hallam and added Scott Miller as vice president of competition in September. Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin’s availability opened the door to make driver changes and add a third full-time team as well. And with the addition of Bowyer came crew chief Brian Pattie.
Although Pattie chose different pit strategy for Bowyer, this fourth-place finish was his first top-five result with the new team.
"These MWR cars have been good ever since Truex was running good at the end of last year,” Bowyer said. “Just real proud of everybody -- 5-hour ENERGY, Toyota.
“Tough call at the end there to come in and pit, but still the right call. We did the right thing there and it got us a top five. Heck of a day for MWR."
Perhaps the most curious performance of all came from Vickers, who led 125 of the first 262 laps in his first race of the season. With Red Bull Racing closing shop at the end of last year, Vickers was left without a ride. However, with Martin running a limited schedule, Vickers picked up the races at Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire with MWR.
And in the first three races of the season, where Martin scored two top-10 finishes and was 10th in points entering Bristol, it was clear that Vickers had a team and the equipment to provide a perfect audition. Now, all three Waltrip teams are in the top 10 in owners points.
"When it's your only one, you have to make it count,” Vickers said. “I can't take any of the credit. Wow, the guys -- I'm just proud to be a part of MWR and get three cars in the top five. What an exciting day. (Crew chief) Rodney Childers bolted together my first go-kart 20 years ago and then he handed it off to my father to finish it off and then he just put together my last one and what a heck of a job. He called a great race and everyone did good.
“This was pretty good and it felt really good when we were out there leading. It would have been awesome to hold onto that, but it's the first time back so I can't complain about that. What an organization. So proud to be a part of getting all three cars in the top five. Can't thank (team owner) Michael Waltrip and (co-owner) Rob Kaufmann and everyone at MWR enough -- I don't know those two guys that well, but I can tell a lot about them by the group of people they've built and the team they've built. What an incredible organization.”
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