Michael Waltrip had ample reason to smile late Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Ten years after forming the Michael Waltrip Racing team and rotating a total of 20 different drivers -- including himself -- into his race cars, Waltrip had finally secured not one but two berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Sunday's results at Atlanta assured that when the Chase begins Sept. 16 in Chicago, MWR drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer will both be in the 12-driver field.
That means at the moment, with only one race left in the regular season, Waltrip has more drivers who have clinched a Chase berth than longtime owners Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske have this season. It's an impressive accomplishment for an organization that in 2008, just four years ago, managed only six top-10 finishes the entire season. So why shouldn't Waltrip have been sporting a wide grin in the moments following the end of the Atlanta race?
The reason that Waltrip's celebration had to be tempered could be found only a few feet away from him along pit road. Truex had just seen what appeared to be his first Sprint Cup victory in five years shredded along with Jamie McMurray's tire. McMurray's flat brought out a caution with less than five laps to go and Truex in firm control of the lead. Truex literally was about two minutes away from snapping a 191-race winless streak. Instead, his crew lost the race off pit road to Denny Hamlin during the caution period, and then Truex spun his tires on the ensuing green-white-checkered restart; he wound up settling for an extremely frustrating fourth-place finish.
So even as Waltrip was accepting a series of handshakes and back slaps for placing two drivers in the Chase, his eyes kept darting over to Truex, who emerged from his car, quickly turned away from the gathering crowd and placed his head face down on the roof. Truex remained in that position for several seconds, prompting Waltrip to finally approach his driver and attempt to offer a few words of encouragement and appreciation.
"The one thing I want to say is thank you," Waltrip said to Truex. "You got us in the Chase, brother. Good job."
Truex nodded, but the pain in his eyes told the true story. The greatest night so far in the history of Michael Waltrip Racing will be one that Truex wants to forget.
"There will be plenty of positives later. Right now I'm just [ticked] off," Truex said. "It sucks. It's just my luck. I can never get anything to go my way. I had the best car. I had a four-second lead running 80 percent throttle, driving away, and the caution has to come out with four laps to go. I'm just tired of it. I'm tired of it.
"It's just tough to lose them when you haven't won in a long time. People keep asking, 'When are you going to win? When are you going to win?' We're close. It just sucks that we couldn't get it done tonight."
Waltrip certainly understands how Truex feels. He began his Cup career by going 462 races without a victory. He knows how rare wins can be, and how painful it feels to see a certain victory snatched away at the last moment. That is why it was difficult for Waltrip to truly delight in his team's overall success Sunday night.
"Somehow we were able to rob the joy out of making the Chase," Waltrip said. "Racing is so crazy. You give it all you got and you've got the win, and then you ... I don't know. We're disappointed that we didn't win. There's nothing you can say. Martin had the race won but Jamie had a flat, and there's nothing you can do about that.
"But I'm so thankful that we're in the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. has been an amazing competitor since we hired him. We finally have given him cars that are fast, and he showed how fast tonight. I'm sad for Martin, but I hope he rejoices in the Chase, that he made it. Because that's an awesome achievement."
What made the situation even more frustrating for both Waltrip and Truex was the way events unfolded after the final caution flag. Truex still had the lead as the cars entered pit road to take on the new tires that were essential to have any chance at victory over the final two laps. But he left in second place, beaten back to the track by Hamlin, whose crew came up with a stellar performance in what turned out to be the most important pit stop of the race.
"You have to respect the athletes on pit road," Waltrip said. "Our guys had an amazing stop, but Denny's guys had one that was just a little better. Sometimes in an athletic contest one team is just able to outperform another, and that was the case."
Truex said he had a bad feeling after that, because he had been spinning his tires on restarts throughout the race, especially when he was on the high side of the track. Sure enough, it happened again on the green-white-checkered restart. And just like that, Truex's chance at the victory was gone.
"I had trouble all night on restarts," Truex said. "As soon as I'd try to go to third gear it would just light the tires up and there was nothing I could do about it. I don't really know why I was doing it. Every restart it did the same thing and I'd get beat to turn one. We fought the same thing there at the end."
With that, Truex turned and quickly headed toward his motorhome, leaving it to his car owner to attempt to put the disappointment of a single race into the greater perspective of the accomplishments of an overall season.
"If you think back to where we were [in 2008], it would have been easy to quit," Waltrip said. "Now we have two cars in the Chase. I'm very thankful and happy for that. We'll celebrate that. It just would have been a lot more fun if we had won."