Clint Bowyer and
Martin Truex Jr. have been instrumental in MWR’s emergence, benefitting
from team changes. Photo by Yahoo Sports
changing face of NASCAR
Amid the frenzy of what would become the closest championship battle in
the history of NASCAR’s premier series, it went virtually unnoticed. As
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards traded jabs on and off the track at
Texas, Martin Truex Jr. piloted a brand new race car to an eighth-place
finish—his best in Fort Worth in almost two years. While momentum swung
among the title contenders at Phoenix, David Reutimann recorded his
first top-10 in 17 weeks. And while the racing universe was transfixed
by the events at Homestead, Truex quietly finished third—right behind
the two drivers who decided the championship between them.
Given the circumstances, the progress was almost completely
overshadowed, lost in a heavyweight championship bout that dominated
the final few weeks of the 2011 campaign. But not at Michael Waltrip
Racing, which was rolling out its new and clearly more competitive race
cars for the first time and laying the groundwork for what would be a
major step forward in 2012.
These days, there’s no overshadowing the progress being made at MWR. It
commands attention, from the positions Truex and new MWR driver Clint
Bowyer occupy in the top 10 of the current Sprint Cup standings, to a
No. 55 car that’s proven competitive whether it’s Mark Martin or Brian
Vickers behind the wheel. The vehicles at MWR are faster, more balanced
and less prone to wild swings in consistency. The development of those
cars has fueled the rise of an organization that one year ago seemed to
be taking large steps in the opposite direction.
“There’s not hardly anything on the car that’s the same,” said Rodney
Childers, crew chief on a No. 55 car shared to this point by Martin and
Vickers. “From this time … last year to now, there’s not anything on
that entire car that’s the same. It’s really basically like starting
And to a large degree it was.
Teams build their cars off one master chassis, and Childers said top
organizations like 10-time champion Hendrick Motorsports revamp that
base vehicle every six months or so. MWR, by comparison, was still
basing everything off a chassis that had been built in 2009 as recently
as the middle of last season. Eventually, that car grew outdated, and
performance suffered as a result.
The impact was clear at a three-car operation that mustered just four
top-fives between them, and went without a victory for the first time
in three seasons. After a few years of creeping up on the elite teams
in NASCAR’s top division, MWR suddenly seemed to lag well behind.
Last April, that lack of performance began to eat at Childers.
“I started getting pretty irritated and banging my head against the
table in many of our meetings,” he remembered, “saying, ‘We’ve got to
start over. We’ve got to build a new car. We’ve got to build all-new
suspension. We’ve got to redo everything.’ Of course, that’s hard to
accept and to say you have to do that. To even say, ‘We have to step
back and punt’ is hard to do. The more and more we got toward that, the
more people starting thinking, you know, that’s really the right thing.”
And so they punted, pouring more efforts into what they hoped would be
a brighter 2012 season instead of trying to right a lost 2011 campaign.
MWR began holding weekly Tuesday meetings open to anyone in the shop
that might have an idea about how to build a better car. The focus was
on improving aerodynamics, lowering the center of gravity, and
rethinking the vehicle in its totality rather than envisioning it as
just a chassis with pieces added on.
Other things happened, too. Lines of communication with manufacturer
Toyota became clearer, and Childers struck up a working relationship
with Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Dave Rogers that stemmed, of all
things, from Childers being angry over an accident involving Reutimann
and Kyle Busch at Kansas.
It all began happening well before MWR brought in key additions like
new director of competition Scott Miller or new crew chief Brian
Pattie, who runs things on Bowyer’s car. And it brought with it a
degree of change that Truex believes affected not only the team’s
vehicles, but the fiber of the organization as whole.
“I think early last year, at some point, we actually thought our cars
were better than they actually were, for some reason,” Truex said. “…
It was a company-wide thing where we just started doing things
different, building new stuff, changing the way we did things. And it
really changed our perspective … we thought we were better than we
were, I guess I’m saying.
“It’s really been a culture change, I think as a company, to now. No
matter how we run, we’re working harder than anybody else and trying to
be the best. If we run third, we’re not happy with that anymore. So,
it’s fun. It’s fun to be a part of that. It’s fun to see the enthusiasm
around the shop, and everybody wanting to win races and be the best out
there. Obviously, it’s paid off for us.”
That much is evident in the standings, where Truex sits sixth and
Bowyer ninth. The No. 55 car, with its array of drivers, ranks ninth in
owners’ points. MWR’s drivers have already combined for more top-five
finishes than they had in all of last season, and Truex is riding a
streak of eight top-10s in his last 11 starts dating back to last year.
That’s the kind of consistency that nets Chase berths, and it’s the
kind of consistency MWR has been noticeably lacking—until now.
No question, MWR upgraded its personnel with the additions of Bowyer,
Martin, Miller and Pattie for this season. But the improvement in the
race cars started before those human pieces began to be added, and the
increased mechanical performance has allowed MWR to take maximum
advantage of that upgraded roster. Truex could feel the difference in
the new car the first time he slid behind the wheel. That was last fall
at Texas, which, in retrospect, stands as the starting point for the
rebirth of this six-year-old franchise co-owned by Waltrip and Rob
“The car just had a good feel to it, and it had speed,” Truex said.
“The biggest thing we noticed was, in green-flag pit stops during the
race, the car was really fast. On new tires, the car had speed. It’s
not always driving perfect, which they never do, but the car has speed
in it. It’s easier to be fast even when the car is off. So, it’s been
easier to work on. And one of the things I’ve noticed about it that
I’ve liked is it’s more user-friendly.
“You don’t go to bed on Saturday night worried to death the balance is
going to shift 180 degrees from what you had in practice and were happy
[with], to when the race starts. So, it’s been a little bit more
consistent for us and that’s been a big key for us this year.”
That’s a stark difference from past seasons, where MWR cars could vary
from race-contending to middle of the pack in consecutive weeks. “No
matter how hard you try, it’s still a hand-made piece,” Miller said.
“But I think we’ve gotten our [quality-control] system down a lot
better to where we’re a lot more consistent, and know a lot more about
what we’ve got from week to week than probably they have before.”
Miller made the move from Richard Childress Racing to MWR the week of
last fall’s Texas race, arriving the same time as the new cars.
Childers said the new vehicles were debuted late last year because the
team wanted to get them some track time before the end of the season.
Then, they’d know what to fine-tune for the upcoming campaign. Once
that was done, the team had to build its fleet for 2012, growing from
just a few new vehicles to enough to supply three full-time programs.
That’s where Miller, known for his organizational acumen, came in.
“A lot of the groundwork was already in place when I walked in the
door,” he said. “Part of the process is being able to get that much
work done, and being efficient in getting it done with limited
resources … compared to Hendrick Motorsports, say. It’s relative. So
trying to get that much work done for three teams to start the year on
all new equipment was really a huge task. I’ve tried to help coordinate
that, and make things more efficient, and push for things with the
ownership that I felt we needed to make that process better. That’s
kind of where I came in.”
Drivers pitched in with feedback, much of it positive. Miller, who won
six times as a crew chief on the Sprint Cup level, began putting more
responsibility in the hands of his lead wrench-turners, which was
“The thing Scott Miller did was, he came in, he took all that stuff in,
and he started listening to the crew chiefs more than what had been
going on before,” Childers said. “And he said, ‘We’re going to get this
thing to where these three guys are happy with what they’re taking to
the race track. Because if they’re not happy, they don’t have any
confidence going into the weekend.’ He did a real good job of
organizing it all, getting the fab shop working with the crew chiefs,
getting it all to mesh a little bit, instead of them all being separate
departments and things like that. He did real good with that part of
it. And then, from a crew chief standpoint, everybody is working
together pretty well.”
It certainly seems that way, judging from the results.
The team’s high-water mark came three weeks ago at Bristol, when all
three MWR vehicles finished inside the top five for the first time
ever. But it goes beyond one race—the team’s three programs have
finished inside the top 10 in 11 of a combined 18 starts this season.
It shows week-in and week-out the kind of performance that threatens to
win races and secure Chase berths. And if that happens, it will be
powered by a vehicle that was overlooked when it debuted during last
year’s championship hunt, yet may very well play a role in deciding the
“That’s where we’re at now, is just looking for that next step,” Truex
said. “So hopefully, we’ll be able to get there.”