Can MWR build on 2012 momentum?
It's rare in NASCAR that someone drastically exceeds their own expectations.
It happened last year, though. Even some of the people at Michael Waltrip Racing seem a little stunned by the organization’s overall growth over the course of last season.
For years, the mantra among some of NASCAR’s elite teams has been that it’s not just about the cars — it is having a good group of people and putting them in the right place that is the key to success. MWR has both — and kept the unit intact after shocking the competition with a surge in 2012.
In what was supposed to be a building year as Clint Bowyer joined the program on a full-time basis and Mark Martin came on board to share a third car with Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers, the organization won races, put two drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and watched as Bowyer vaulted to second in the standings.
It was a run that even the men stepping up and exceeding goals found a little beyond expectation.
“I didn’t even think it was possible,” Bowyer said of surging to second in the overall standings over the course of the final races.
After the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he was told of his feat. His response when told he was second?
“I was like, ‘I saw that. Great point there,’” said Bowyer, who thought it applied merely to his finish in the race. “And he was like, ‘No, in the points.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ Certainly, so yes, it caught me by surprise.”
Waltrip, a veteran racer turned team owner, felt the same.
“We went into the 2012 season pretty confident that we could do more than we’ve ever done before, but I wasn’t quite bold enough to think that we could win more races, have more top five (finishes) and have more top 10s in 2012 than we’ve had in the history of our team,” he said. “So a great job by the guys not only behind the wheel but their participation in giving MWR all they are off the track. Helping us with our sponsors, helping us with our competition meetings and really going all in.”
Now, though, the success of 2012 simply fosters a hunger for more within the organization. Ask anyone involved and they see nothing but promise on the horizon.
Can MWR do this again? There is no one within this team that believes otherwise.
Martin Truex Jr., the veteran driver in the core who is fresh off a Chase run, didn’t join Bowyer in being surprised last year. He said that he saw the group come together in the offseason and knew they were on to something special.
“Really it was 2011, the end of 2011 that got us started,” he said. “We built new cars, we did a lot of things differently. Had momentum going into the offseason, felt good, had a good direction going into ‘12 and I told a lot of people last year that we were going to be somebody that could go out and run strong each and every week and I felt like we could go out and make the Chase and we were able to do that so it started in ‘11 for sure, but it was mostly the direction the team was going in because of our leadership, because of (team co-owners) Michael and Rob (Kauffman)’s commitment to put our team where it was last year and that commitment is obviously to keep going in that direction and hopefully we can do that this year.”
That commitment has brought together a group of people who want to work together — and work together well.
That is, in large part, because of the personalities of the men involved.
Martin, 54, is a veteran with a string of young drivers he’s taken under his wings over the years. Bowyer, 33, is a rising talent in his second year with the team and entering his seventh in the series. Truex, 32, helped build this organization and looks as fit and charged up to enter a season as anyone.
Martin is more philosophical, Truex is more quiet and Bowyer is the most lively of the group. But they mesh perfectly. This is an organization where all the drivers seem to be working together, where no one points out his own experience or time in the sport but rather all work toward the common good. They share the same shop, share employees — and the philosophy on what it will take to win.
It truly is a team effort.
“It always has been, since I walked in the door at MWR,” Bowyer said. “Truex and I battled it out back in the Nationwide (Series) days. I had a lot of confidence in him as a driver and knew what I had as a teammate there and then Mark Martin, the surprise afterward, after I had signed up (learning he could join the team) ... I was like, “Hell yes, get him hired now.” Just another breath of fresh air and another great asset. There’s so many great things that are making this all possible that it’s pretty cool to see it now.”
While everyone involved is optimistic about the season, each carries a healthy dose of realism as well.
This group recognizes just how critical of a year this is. Bowyer faces questions of a runner-up curse, a legend heightened in NASCAR circles by the breakdown of both Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards in the seasons following their second-place finishes in the championship. Hamlin came close in 2010, then struggled mightily in 2011. Edwards lost in a tiebreaker in 2011, and went winless and Chase-less in 2012.
Bowyer, one of the more free-spirited drivers in the sport, isn’t wasting time worrying about the possibility.
It’s difficult to imagine the driver known for quick-witted commentary and a seeming unwillingness to focus on any one thing for too long spending great amounts of time dwelling on much that is negative. This is no different.
“Here’s the thing — it’s either going to happen or it’s not,” he said. “I guess if it does happen, what are you going to do about it? You’re going to work hard to try to correct it, no different than they did. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not going to happen, I’m going to tell you why I don’t think it’s going to happen and those are the things that I’ve said. Just being able to continue to improve all the way to Homestead last year, those are the things that I see. There’s still room to improve. We’ve improved through the offseason from what we had, through preparation for those tests, the communication at those tests, unloading with a fast car at those tests.”
And, he sees a difference between himself and the others.
"It seems like those guys all had a piece of the puzzle gone, like they’ve lost a guy or something like that,” he said. “We were able to keep everybody intact and aim to do so.”
Still, they know the fickle nature of racing. Truex watched Dale Earnhardt Inc. go from dynasty to team trying to win races on a regular basis. Martin helped build Roush Fenway Racing into the powerhouse it is today, has logged hours with both DEI and Hendrick Motorsports.
So despite all the things the team has going for it, Martin knows there is a crucial question to face — can they do it again?
And, like everyone else, he sees all the reasons that it can while also respecting all the obstacles that can fall into their path.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “We all know that. Everybody at MWR has been in the sport for a while, they understand how it works. We were thrilled with what we were able to do last year but we have all those good people and it’s a really good atmosphere. Working in the atmosphere at MWR is incredible.
“We’re realistic. We know that to come back and repeat the kind of level of competition we put out there is a huge challenge for us and to step it up is even a bigger challenge. Everybody tries to do that, that’s obviously what we hope to do. We hope to be able to perform on the same level or be able to step it up and we really hope to step it up.”
With so much success in 2012, Waltrip says the team has had to make new goals.
Now, they embark on the task of living up to those raised expectations.
“We’d like to do one spot better than we did last year — that would be awesome,” he said. “It would be cool to have two bullets up there in the fight to have a couple of them racing for the championship. Our goals or our internal goals are to win more races than we did in 2012 and put two cars in the Chase. Those aren’t really predictions — those are just goals that we have set. I think they are realistic goals and we look forward to the chance — it would be cool to see the (No.) 55 be one of those cars too because of the different driver lineup.”