CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The key figures at Michael Waltrip Racing are banking that performance will put the most publicized cheating scandal in NASCAR history behind them.
Fined $300,000 for trying to manipulate the finish of last September’s race at Richmond, it turned from bad to worse for organization.
Driver Martin Truex Jr. lost his spot in the Chase for the Championship after audio indicated Bowyer followed team orders and spun out his Toyota with just seven laps to go.
Ty Norris, the team’s general manager, ordered another teammate, Brian Vickers, to pull in the pits. For his actions, Norris was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR before finally getting reinstated a week ago. He still remains under probation, although within the organization he is still the go-to guy.
“He is the key interface of MWR with sponsors,” Waltrip said about Norris. He also does a lot of the recruiting of people in the garage area. Having him in the garage is important.”
Bowyer explained that although Norris no longer serves as a spotter at the race track, he is the man who runs the organization on a day-to-day basis.
“Just because he hasn’t been at the race track, he has always been there,” Bowyer said. “Every time I go to MWR, I go to Ty’s office to talk business, to talk sponsorships, what we need to do. Then, you go talk to competition. As far I’m concerned, Ty’s always been the one to see.”
Still, there was plenty of uncertainty at MWR when Truex’s sponsor, NAPA, left the organziation and MWR had to scale back to two teams. It forced the workforce of 220 people to be reduced by about 15 percent. Since then, many of the team’s resources have been shifted to the engineering and research in hopes of compensating for the loss of manpower.
“The most important part of performance is engineering,” Norris said. “We didn’t cut engineering. We added in engineering and our budget went up seven figures. It’s up 15 percent year over year, and that’s because of (team co-owner) Rob Kauffman. He was like this is where we’re going to put our money and focus because that is the most important element.”
Winning a race early is one of the team’s biggest goals. All of the organization’s testing resources are being spent the first third of the season. Jeff Burton, a 21-year veteran of the Cup Series, has spent much of the offseason with MWR’s research and development team.
Kauffman insisted the team remains as strong as ever despite the loss of so many people.
“I think the emphasis is more on winning given the structure of things,” Kauffman said. “What we did in the reorganization is we had three cars worth of stuff, now we’re focused on putting two of them on the track. That means more resources for fewer cars.”
There are still challenges.
Vickers, who missed much of the 2010 season with blood clots, was sidelined again for the final five races of 2013. He said he’s excited about getting back in the race car and is scheduled to do testing today.
Bowyer, who ended up seventh in the final point standings, sees this season as his most important ever. He insists, however, it isn’t about rebuilding his reputation. Instead, he talked about falling to seventh in the points last season after being series runner-up the previous year. There is also the matter of this being a contract year.
“I’ve got to perform because there is a lot of competition out there every year,” he said. “People are trying to protect their rides and look for other ones. It’s a nerve-racking time and I hate this time every three years or so.”
As for the team owners, it’s all about looking ahead.
“The past is the past. I can’t change what I had for breakfast,” Kauffman said. “All we can focus on is what we can do next. The whole point of this is to win races and compete for the championship.”
Waltrip added, “We’ve closed the book (on last year). Only a fool would trip over something behind them.”