Waltrip teams setting their sights high

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 12, 2012 at 11:27 PM

Michael Waltrip claims his race teams are ready to boldly go where they’ve never gone before.

While it might be easy to dismiss the NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner’s talk as pie in the sky, Waltrip insists there is a plenty to back it up.

“We’re confident we can compete inside the Chase,” Waltrip said. “We don’t say that based on hopes. It’s based on science.”

That science includes a new working agreement with fellow Toyota organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, which includes JGR supplying engines and sharing computer simulations.

“Our relationship with JGR had matured, but not expanded,” said Waltrip, in his sixth year as a team owner. “Now we’re sharing technology, doing whatever we can to make both organizations stronger. I feel it’s elevated us into a tier-one team along with JGR.”

There is certainly an upgrade in driver talent as Chase veterans Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin joined Michael Waltrip Racing during the offseason.

They join two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Martin Truex Jr., who finished second in last August’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Brian Vickers, who will be in the No. 55 Toyota instead of Martin for this Sunday’s Food City 500.

It’s unconventional for multiple drivers to share the same ride during a season such as Waltrip, Martin and Vickers are with the No. 55 this season. But Waltrip said it’s sometimes good to travel a different path.

“We try to be a little bit different,” Waltrip said. “I’m a driver, an owner. I wrote a book and hosted a comedy show. I’m not afraid to try new things.”

It’s been that way with the race teams as the two-time Daytona 500 champion quickly enlisted the help of Rob Kaufmann, a billionaire business owner and successful road racer, who lives in London.

Waltrip credits his business partner for keeping the team on the right track.

“Rob has stepped up to do things with the team that weren’t being done,” Waltrip said. “We decided we were going to go in a new direction. Rob and I decided we were going to be more hands-on, day-to-day.

“You have to look at everything around you. We had the performance to make the Chase last season, but we had six finishes outside the top 35. We know what we did wrong and we can fix it. We just have to get our performances more consistent.”

Through the first three races of the 2012 season, the MWR team as done that. Truex is a solid eighth in the latest Sprint Cup point standings with Martin two spots back in 10th and Bowyer in 13th.

While Waltrip is quick to tout his driver lineup, he added much of the team’s improvement comes from the behind the scenes work.

“It’s the best I’ve seen from the engineering department. We have a lot of things going for us,” he said. “I feel good about this year, but time will tell. It’s a lot better than two years ago, but even last year when things were up and down, I had a lot of fun.”

Now 48, Waltrip insists he’s content with a part-time driving role. A veteran of 766 Cup Series starts and a former Bristol winner in the Nationwide Series, Waltrip said he’s fine not racing in Sunday’s Food City 500.

“I’m blessed I get to race a Ferrari at Daytona,” Waltrip said. “I’m happy I finished in the top 10 my last race at Talladega. I’m glad I don’t do it every week. We have a better lineup than if I did it every week.”

With the strong driver lineup, he insists the sky is the limit for his race teams. Often the jokester, he turns dead serious when talking about the expectations for this season.

“We like how we finished 2011, but when you think about it, we didn’t change our goals,” Waltrip said. “Our goals are to make the Chase and win multiple races. That is the only thing that is acceptable.”

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