Waltrip Racing's success at Bristol more than a year in the making
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- With the late afternoon sun bearing down during an unseasonably warm day, Michael Waltrip exited Fox's temperature-controlled studio and headed to pit road for a celebration. There was no time to loosen his gold-patterned tie or shed his black jacket.
As his teams went through post-race inspection -- all three Michael Waltrip Racing cars finished in the top five Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway -- he congratulated crew members, shook hands and traded smiles.
"A big day for us," Waltrip said as he embraced Ty Norris, the team's executive vice president of business development.
For a team that had four top-five finishes all of last season, seeing Martin Truex Jr. finish third, Clint Bowyer place fourth and Brian Vickers -- driving in place of Mark Martin, who's on a partial schedule -- take fifth was monumental.
This was not a day that came by chance, though. This was a day more than a year in the making.
Since joining the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2007, Michael Waltrip Racing often was branded as a team with potential, but the title became a burden, a symbol of what was expected but rarely achieved. A pairing with Toyota increased financial backing when the team needed money, and two victories showed signs of hope, but, each time the organization failed to sustain that success.
Something had to be done to make the team, housed in a former 12-screen movie theatre, stand on its own instead of relying on Waltrip's personality to woo sponsors.
Change brewed even before last season. That's when the decision was made to take a deep examination of MWR to discover, as Waltrip said, "what's holding us back."
Norris said that Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing provided notes, showing the organization where it was compared to the Gibbs operation.
"We were off," Norris said. "We said we've got to fix these things. It was an investment in people, it was an investment in time and the biggest thing was the attitude change. We had to change the attitude that we were OK. We were not OK.
"We decided to scrap what we had and completely redesign."
Soon, personnel changes were being made along with changes to the cars. For everything the organization did, success was slow to come.
"There was a while last year where we were building new stuff," said Truex, who is fourth in the point standings. "It felt like we were going to the racetrack without using any of our new stuff because it wasn't ready yet. It kind of took a while to get everything put in place to make sure that it was going to be good.
"Toward the end of the year we started having good runs, having consistency."
Another key change for Truex came when Chad Johnston took over as crew chief in July -- about the same time current points leader Greg Biffle had a crew chief change at Roush Fenway Racing. Johnston joined MWR in 2010 as an engineer and his midseason promotion gave him time to learn the crew chief position and help the team start strong this year.
"He was coming into his own, getting some confidence, getting his arms around the team and what I liked," Truex said of Johnston last season.
Improved performances followed. Truex scored his three top-five finishes in the 19 races with Johnston last year and finished with four top-10s in the final five races.
As the changes took place, the team attracted key people. Scott Miller left Richard Childress Racing to become the executive vice president of competition. Clint Bowyer followed him. Brian Pattie joined to become Bowyer's crew chief. Mark Martin also joined the operation.
"We started making some bold changes in every area," Norris said. "Ultimately, when Scott Miller decided to come along, which helped us get Clint Bowyer, which helped us get Mark Martin, all of a sudden, the entire organization was ready. We were ready to take advantage of what we had."
That proved true Sunday.
"I think this is more indicative of what's to come," Waltrip said. "You pop up and win one and go away, that's not what we're here for. We want to run for a championship. How you race for a championship is run in the top five and have your cars good weekend in and weekend out.''
That was evident with Vickers, tabbed to drive six races in place of Martin. Making his first start of the season, Vickers led 125 laps at a track where he had led one lap in 14 previous races.
"Clearly, the cars are good," Vickers said.
Rodney Childers, the crew chief for the car Martin, Vickers and Waltrip will drive this season, says the key is that the team is building new cars.
"Every car we've brought to the racetrack this year has been a brand new car, new chassis, all new suspension components,'' he said. "These things are 100 percent better than what we had. This is a credit to everybody putting their foot down and saying enough is enough.
"A lot goes back to Michael and [co-owner] Rob Kauffman and how much money they've poured into this thing, especially Rob. At Daytona, he said, "If there's anything you need, you make sure you let me know, and I'll do whatever I've got to do to make it work.'"
It's about more than just money for Vickers.
"You really learn a lot about someone, especially an owner or a leader of a team by who they surround themselves with," Vickers said. "I don't have to know Rob or Michael that well. They're obviously good leaders because they've built a good team. They've had the patience and determination to see it through."
It's what Bowyer, eighth in points, saw when he made his move to MWR last year.
"When you're trying to figure out a place to go and this opportunity presents itself, you're like, Maybe this is a sign," he said. "Hopefully, this is a sign of what's yet to come."