LOUDON, N.H. — Michael Waltrip didn’t feel as if he needed to be in the picture.
The NASCAR driver-turned-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing preferred to take a back seat as those around him basked in the spotlight after his two drivers, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Humbled by the journey to get there, Waltrip wanted to enjoy the moment, step back for some perspective, after Bowyer won the regular-season finale Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway.
So he slipped into the photographer’s bullpen in Victory Lane and began snapping photos of his jubilant team.
“Bowyer looked up and saw me taking pictures of my boys and he said, ‘What are you doing over there? Get over here!’ ’’ Waltrip said with a chuckle. “It was important for me to be able to see it from every angle, because I put so much into it, and to be able to stand back and watch our people celebrate, it was the best week of my car-owner life for sure, ever.’’
Bowyer, in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, had just won the Chase cut-off race to cement his spot as the No. 6 seed in NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs while Truex, who spent the last 25 races of the season consistently running in the top 10, clinched the No. 10 seed, giving MWR its first presence in the Chase in its sixth year of existence.
MWR’s success left its NASCAR competitors doing a double take.
It was a surreal moment for Waltrip, to be sure. He remembered coming to Richmond for the spring race in the team’s inaugural season in 2007, and the humiliation of failing to qualify any of his three Toyota entries.
“I remember in 2007 when Michael was getting ready to start his team and everybody, including me, thought he had bitten off way more than he could chew,’’ said Bowyer, who was hired away from Richard Childress Racing to pilot the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota that visited Victory Lane twice this season. “I thought that he might be done before he ever got started — before the end of the year it looked like. But he kept going.’’
Waltrip left Richmond that year worried about the solvency of his team and about his personal finances after sinking nearly his entire savings into the venture.
“We left there thinking, ‘Where are we going?’ ’’ Waltrip recalled.
After MWR failed to qualify in 39 of 108 attempts with its three cars in the first year of operation, no one could have predicted Waltrip would survive to see the day when he would qualify not one but two cars for the Chase.
“To go back to Richmond, win the last race before the Chase, have two cars in the playoffs, and to be really part of the story going into the Chase, it’s been really rewarding because of how far we’ve come since that trip there in ’07,’’ said Waltrip, whose team started to gain traction when New York investment banker Rob Kauffman came aboard as co-owner in October 2007.
“I knew what we were up against, and not a lot of people did. I just remembered thinking, ‘I hope we can figure out where we can go from here.’ How were we going to solve this problem that we had? Our cars weren’t competitive and we had overestimated our ability to contend and compete and we obviously underestimated how much it was going to cost to do it.
“So, not just leaving Richmond that particular weekend, but leaving the track every weekend in 2007 feeling disappointed, confused, and lost was where we were then.”
Turning the corner
While he may have left his fellow competitors scratching their heads at the outset of his operation, Waltrip wound up turning heads this season with a series of moves that not only fortified the team but showcased its organizational might.
The first move was to bring aboard veteran driver Mark Martin, who brought stability to the three-car stable. Then there was the hiring of director of competition Scott Miller from Childress and the pairing of Bowyer with crew chief Brian Pattie, who was let go from Ganassi Racing.
In August, MWR agreed to multiyear contract extensions with the 32-year-old Truex and NAPA Auto Parts as the primary sponsor of Truex’s No. 56 Toyota in all 36 NASCAR races for the term of the contract, making it one of the few full-time sponsors in the sport.
“It’s just been a season where we’ve done a lot of really great things and I’ve been really proud of the organization for what they’ve done,’’ said Truex, who recorded six top-fives and 14 top-10s this season. “To think where we were sitting last year to where we are today is phenomenal.’’
“I think Michael’s done a really unbelievable job,’’ said car owner Rick Hendrick, who put all four of his cars in the Chase. “You can hire and bring a lot of new people together, but getting them to work together is tough.
“I think Bowyer and Mark Martin have added a lot to that organization.
“They have been super competitive. To build an organization with cars like that, I think it’s the success story of the year.”
But, Waltrip said, it was not an overnight process.
“I know the results of 2011 don’t show it, but we were doing a lot of important things at MWR,’’ Waltrip said. “We were building new cars and pushing in closer with Toyota Racing Development. Hiring Scott Miller and getting Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer on board, all those things happened in 2011.
“We wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the success that we’ve had in 2012 if it weren’t for all that went on in 2011.’’
Building a better car
Waltrip said there was “one watershed moment’’ for MWR in January 2011 when he sidled up to Andy Graves, a senior manager at Toyota Racing Development, and asked, “Are our cars as good as Joe Gibbs’s cars?’’
Graves replied bluntly, “No, no they’re not as good.’’
It was at that moment Waltrip realized his team needed to focus on building better and faster racecars.
“I knew we had people smart enough to build the best cars in the whole world,’’ Waltrip said. “We defined some of the gaps in the process of building them better and we corrected those gaps and we began to prepare and build cars that are as good as Joe Gibbs’s, and that’s how we started the ’12 season.’’
Waltrip had a sense things were destined to take a turn for the better in 2012 when Truex finished third in the 2011 season finale at Homestead.
“When we left Miami,’’ Waltrip said. “I was pretty confident that we were going to have cars and we would have the people and the process in place to be competitive in 2012.’’
But no one figured it would result in MWR putting two of its cars in the Chase, both of which will compete in the second stage in Sunday’s Syvlania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It explains why Waltrip attempted to take the long view of his team’s euphoria that night in Richmond.
“If you can’t enjoy what’s going on around you, I feel like you’re depriving yourself of the joy that you deserve,’’ Waltrip said. “And we deserved to be happy that night and I wanted to see it from every angle.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.