Friday April 17th, 2009

The moment is still frozen in Michael McDowell's mind: Blazing into Turn One at Texas Motor Speedway during Cup qualifying last spring, McDowell drove over a patch of speedy dry -- a granular substance that removes oil from the track. A moment later, at 170 miles per hour, he lost control of his car. McDowell's wife, Jamie, was walking from pit road to the garage. When her husband's car smashed into the wall, she thought a bomb had exploded.

Eleven times, McDowell's No. 00 Toyota flipped and barrel-rolled down the backstretch at over 100 miles per hour. Jamie, seeing the accident play out on a large infield video screen, sprinted to the medical center, hoping her husband hadn't become the first fatality in the Cup series since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death in 2001. "On no," she screamed.

Miraculously, McDowell walked away from the horrifying wreck -- the impact was measured to be more violent than Earnhardt's -- but his Toyota was totaled. Today that car sits on display at Michael Waltrip Racing, a constant reminder of two things: The danger involved in the sport and the day that was the low-point in the short history of MWR, which launched in 2007.

But now, a year later, that No. 00 Toyota and its new driver, David Reutimann, are the feel-good story of the young 2009 Sprint Cup season. At this point in 2008, Reutimann was 28th in the standings and struggling simply to stay in the top 35 in the points and therefore have a guaranteed starting spot. Now he's 11th in the standings and looking very much like a driver who's headed to the Chase.

"Before, we were just trying to stay in the top 20 or get a top-20 finish or top-15," Reutimann said. "The reality is that at this time last year we weren't ready to run in the top 10. We just weren't a good enough team to do that. Everybody is better, things have evolved. Now we're to the point where, I think I've said it before, a top-15 should be a bad race for you that day. If everything goes right, you don't have problems and you finish 15th -- a bad day needs to be 15th or a little bit better. That's what it needs to come down to."

As it is in stick-and-ball sports, the top teams in NASCAR are the ones with the most talented individuals. Yes, having access to mountains of resources helps, but ultimately, it takes talent to put those resources to use. Case in point is MWR. The most important move owner Michael Waltrip may have made was hiring Steve Hallam last year to be his competition director. Hallam had been the head of race operations for Formula 1's McLaren team, and now he runs MWR like an F1 boss -- with an iron fist.

At competition meetings he doesn't tolerate any whining; he's been able to provide a fresh perspective on how things should operate in NASCAR. Before Hallam arrived, there wasn't a clear leader at MWR; there is now. Hallam will preside over as many as half a dozen meetings with drivers and crew chiefs each weekend at the track, which is more than virtually every other team.

Reutimann actually started showing signs of being a Chase contender late last year. After finishing in the top 10 just once in the first 24 races of 2008, he had three top 10s in the final 12 races and he also won the pole at Homestead in the season-finale. This offseason MWR allocated as many resources as any other team to engine development -- Toyota Racing Development also pitched in -- and it's shown on the track. Reutimann has finished 14th or better in five of the seven races, and he captured the pole at Texas. As he was celebrating that feat in Victory Lane, the video of McDowell's crash was played on the video screen high above the track.

"Why do they have to show that?" Reutimann said when he saw the wreck. "I guess that just puts an exclamation mark on how things have changed. It got the team a lot of exposure, that's for sure, but this is the kind of exposure you really need."

Indeed it is. And on Saturday night in Phoenix in the Subway Fresh Fit 500, keep an eye on the No. 00. Take this to the bank: It won't be long before Reutimann reaches Victory Lane to hand MWR its first-ever win.

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