April 29, 2012
By Kim Roberson
What is going on over at Michael Waltrip Racing?
When I asked that question in past years, it meant that things were going downhill in performance and/or finishes. But this year, it is the complete opposite. It is like they are a different team, with poles and strong finishes and smiles all around.
So what IS going on at MWR that has everyone so happy instead of frustrated?
Mark Martin scored his second pole of the season in the MWR No. 55 Aarons Dream Machine on Friday afternoon. When he walked into the Richmond International Raceway media center after qualifying was over, there was nothing that was going to wipe the smile off of his face, and for good reason.
“I want to say this right now, this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the incredible teamwork that (teammate) Martin Truex Jr. has put into this thing for Clint (Bowyer) and I and Clint’s contribution as well. This is just a culmination of incredible teamwork and great people that are really excited and doing an awful lot at MWR right now. “
Truex Jr., who drives the No. 56 NAPA Toyota for MWR, fired the majority of his team one year ago after the wheels almost literally fell off at Richmond. He had led the majority of the race, and seemed to have the win in sight until the last set of pit stops let to a loose wheel, and a bad finish. Since that time, the No. 56 team has rebuilt itself from one that had only five top fives all last season to one that has had five in the first eight races, and almost had a win last weekend in Kansas.
“To sit here and point my finger at one or two different things -- giving the credit to two or three different reasons would be crazy," explained Truex, Jr., at Richmond. “There are some many things that go into this.
"Every area of our company is better. I feel like across the board -- the drivers are better, the crew chiefs are better, the communication, better race cars, TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is building better engines -- really every piece of the puzzle is better this year than it has been in the past too.
"Again, we talked about momentum from last year. We had a lot -- I think we accounted for at least 10 of those top-tens last year. We have three cars that seem to run really well this year, whereas before we had one or two. So, that’s another factor in there.
"Just can’t say enough about the job everybody’s done at MWR and the help we get from Toyota. They were instrumental in really turning the program around -- the middle part of last year and giving us a good direction to move forward in. Really got to thank those guys and give them a lot of the credit.”
The additional help from Toyota has helped MWR gain a lot on Toyota’s top team, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). While JGR still has more wins than MWR, including this weekend’s race in Richmond, it is the consistency that the 56, 55 and 15 have been having that is keeping them close on the heels of the JGR cars in the points standings. When asked about the overall improvement in the three MWR cars, Coach Gibbs stated “I’m proud of how they have stepped up their program this season,” and added that the better they are on the track, the better they all are since they are now working even more closely together than before on sharing information.
That sharing is why two of MWR’s cars are in the top 12 in owners’ points, and Martin, who has only run seven of the nine races this season, is himself in the top 20. But don’t let that “part time” in front of Martin’s schedule fool you in to thinking he is in a less than top notch frame of mind.
“First of all, whatever fallacy that goes along with part time schedules, I can’t quite get my arms wrapped around as how that is viewed as less than optimal,” Martin explained to me after I asked him about how he feels about performing so well despite running a partial schedule. “I mean when we go out on the race track it’s today, and that’s all it is. It’s not about 38 races or 36 races, it’s about today and my team is behind me 100%, so that part of it is really, really good.
"The morale is fantastic (at MWR), and I have to give Martin Truex, Jr., a lot of credit for what I’m driving because he’s been there and helped them along the way. You know in racing, you’re lucky if you don’t stay on the bottom all of the time, but you never stay on the top either, so it’s cool to be as strong as we are and to be contenders to win and having -- one of my goals for 2012 is to have two cars, MWR cars, in the chase, and I am as dedicated as anyone could be to those two cars scoring points, and to my team and Aaron's to get performance and hopefully win a race.”
Truex, Jr. agrees that MWR has a point to prove, and he’s happy to help prove it. “I feel like we’ve proven that we’re not a flash in the pan. We’re a consistent front-runner -- a guy that should be able to contend week in and week out, but again it’s still early and we’ve got a lot of work to do. We understand that it’s early. We understand we can be better as a team.
"There’s things we can do better still. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what everybody think of us. It matter how good of a job we do and we’re going to keep that in sight and keep working hard.”
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
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