Michael Waltrip Racing spent most of the 2007 Sprint Cup season in dire financial trouble, at times only days away from missing payroll and closing its doors. In the aftermath of Clint Bowyer's victory at Sonoma, Waltrip reflected on those stressful days.
"This place just reminds me of how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started [in Cup] in 2007," Waltrip said. "We came here and put Terry Labonte into my car just so we could be sure of making the race ... that was just five short years ago that we came here, wondering what our future was like and how we were going to survive.
"We probably appreciate [winning] more than anybody ever could because we know how close we were to just not being around any more, just six months after our start."
Waltrip's team had won twice before with David Reutimann at Charlotte in a rain-shortened race in 2009 and at Chicagoland in 2010 in a more legitimate rout. They were big breakthroughs, but Bowyer's triumph carried the feel of a more defining moment. From its humble beginnings, Michael Waltrip Racing has finally arrived as a top echelon operation in Sprint Cup.
They flirted with it all season with a string of top-five and top-10 runs from all three entries. Martin Truex, Jr. was second at Kansas and third at Bristol, where teammates Bowyer in fourth and Brian Vickers in fifth put three MWR cars in the top five and became the early warning that something special was brewing. Bowyer's win elevates them into the next level.
Sixteen races into the season, 10 from the Chase, Bowyer is seventh and Truex is ninth in points. The other teams with two cars in the top 10 are Roush Fenway with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle and Hendrick with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
MWR, remarkably, is challenging Joe Gibbs Racing for status as the top Toyota team. It would have been unthinkable a year ago when Truex was 18th and the departed Reutimann was 28th in points.
Gibbs has contributed to the turnaround. Toyota Racing Development and Gibbs combined their engine departments midway through last season and Waltrip began working closer with TRD's chassis department at the start of 2011.
"I give [TRD's] Andy Graves a lot of credit any time I'm asked about where we are today," Waltrip said. "The reason for that is simple. I went to him in January of 2011 and I said, 'Are our cars as good as Joe Gibbs' cars?' And he said, 'No, they are not because you don't trust our process. Your people don't believe in [us] -- your direction is not to follow us.'
"I said, 'Well, we are changing directions, Buddy, and we are going to start following you.' They have helped us. It took from early 2011 all the way until November of 2011 to get those cars on the road and Truex drove at [Homestead- Miami] and qualified second and finished third. We have a great partner in Toyota Racing Development and we didn't exploit them as much as we should have up until the 2011 season."
Scott Miller left Richard Childress Racing to become Vice President of Competition at MWR, a deal negotiated by former Executive Vice President Cal Wells last summer. Miller has made a difference, too.
"We were well down that [TRD] road and talked to Scott Miller and explained to him where we were and where we were heading and he believed in our process and he believed in who we are and who we were," Waltrip said.
The unsung hero at Waltrip is co-owner Rob Kauffman, who has played a vital role in the rise of the organization. Kauffman, one of the founders of the New York City-based Fortress Investment Group, bought half the team from Waltrip in October 2007, and pays attention to his investment. He called Bowyer in Victory Lane.
"Rob Kauffman, my other boss I guess, you don't hear a lot about him," Bowyer said.
Kauffman is a racer, too. He codrove at the Le Mans 24 Hour with Vickers and with Waltrip in the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year in a Ferrari 458. Kauffman's investment in the team was important, but it came with strings that brought management expertise to the team.
Kauffman worked with noted motorsports attorney Alan Miller in putting together the deal. Jimmie Johnson and Bowyer are among the clients Miller represents, but he also represents teams, including Waltrip. Miller also was instrumental in Bowyer going to Waltrip.
"It took everybody, Michael, [General Manager] Ty Norris, Bobby Kennedy, TRD, Scott Miller, the drivers, to bring Michael Waltrip to its current level, but if you had to pick one person, Mr. Kauffman has to be that person," Miller said. "He brought financial stability and management expertise to the company."
MWR had gone from primarily a Nationwide team that had never run more than five races in a season in Cup to running three full-time cars in 2007. They didn't have top-35 points and it was difficult to qualify into the races. Reutimann made it into 26 races, Dale Jarrett 24, Waltrip 14, Labonte three and P.J. Jones two. Waltrip had some loyal sponsors that came with him and that loyalty was severely tested. Not making races also cost the team substantial purse money.
Red Bull and Bill Davis Racing were also Toyota teams in 2007 and are now out of business. Without Kauffman, MWR could have met the same fate.
Instead, MWR is alive and thriving. It takes years to build the infrastructure, sponsors and teams to succeed at the top level of NASCAR. MWR has done it in six seasons. They had plenty of reasons to celebrate at Sonoma.