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Michael Waltrip's guys? Wow, what a year. Now, time for an encore? What next to surprise?

Michael Waltrip's guys? Wow, what a year. Now, time for an encore? What next to surprise?

When Michael Waltrip (R) decided to step things up, one of the first men he hired last season was Scott Miller, the veteran engineer, as his team's competition director (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Critical mass, maybe, finally.
   Certainly chemistry.
   And the physics worked pretty darned well too.
   To say his guys 'over-achieved' in 2012 would be understatement for Michael Waltrip.
   The season, not to put too fine a point on it, was the climax to the long-running Michael Waltrip saga that started in his first, oh so trying, season as owner-driver in 2007.
   Encore! Encore?

   Clint Bowyer, one of Waltrip's newest drivers, wound up challenging for the Sprint Cup championship, finishing second to Brad Keselowski.
   Ageless Mark Martin, also a relative newcomer here, thrived on his part-time schedule, proving to be a force to contend with nearly every week he showed up at the track.
   Martin Truex Jr. had a career-best season, making the playoffs and earning a new three-year contract and sponsorship.
   And Brian Vickers, likewise a new player in this game, played remarkably well in his role as spot performer.
   So what the heck just happened here?
   Well, Scott Miller as new competition director, for one. A new man, though with considerable race engineering background, in both Indy-cars and NASCAR, coming over to Toyota after several years with Chevrolet's Richard Childress.
   Crew chief Brian Pattie, for another. A new man too, taking the helm of Bowyer's team, after working with Juan Pablo Montoya and Chevy's Chip Ganassi.
   And Miller will point to Waltrip's huge staff on hand when the newcomers all walked in the door.


Brian Vickers (L) and Michael Waltrip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "There was a great nucleus here when I walked in the door, when Clint walked in the door, when Mark Martin walked in the door, and when Brian Pattie walked in the door," Miller says.
   "Everyone had some influence in what we did last year. But the core group that made it happen was already here. And this sport really is about cooperation, between the race teams and between the departments in the shop.
   "When you get an organization as big as these teams have become, it's really all about cooperation and pulling for a common goal."

    However perhaps a real key to the sudden charge of the Waltrip brigade was that so many key figures -- Bowyer, Martin, Truex, Vickers, Pattie, and Miller -- all had something to prove.
   That may have been the real edge.
   The question now is how to keep these guys from getting too complacent and lackadaisical, after such a great deal.
   What to do for an encore?
   Miller says this new 2013 project may be the key. It came along at just the right time for his guys.
   "The timing of this new car couldn't be better for us -- it's new, and it will keep everyone excited and motivated. We certainly don't want to come out of the box and perform poorly. The new car is impetus for us to keep the ball rolling."


  One of Scott Miller's stops along the way: crew chief for Jeff Burton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   There may not be much time to sit around the shop and enjoy complacency.

   "We feel we're well prepared to take all the data from the new car and process it, and hopefully come out the other end competitive," Miller says.
   "The rollout of the COT (car of tomorrow) was a phase-in (through 2007). This 2013 is pretty much 'out with the old, in with the new.'
   "It was late. There were some problems with getting some things executed in a timely manner. And it has added extra challenge to the whole program.   
   "But you could ask my counterpart at any team, or ask any crew chief, and they'd all say 'We're way behind, where we would (normally) be at this date this close to the start of the season.'
   "The saving grace for all of us is that because of the lateness of everything, nobody can be that far ahead.
   "We're all behind...but not behind the others, because we're all facing the same things."

   This most recent Charlotte test, last week, didn't really provide teams with much information, Miller says. "That won't be representative of how we race.
   "But if someone had a distinct advantage over someone else, I think it would have shown up in that test."


  Michael and Company: Mark Martin (C) and Clint Bowyer (R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Just what is Miller's car count for Bowyer, Truex, Martin and Vickers right now?
   Miller laughs: "It depends on what you call a car.
   "And I'm not trying to be funny.
   "If you mean cars with engines and tires that you could start up and go, well, we had three for the Daytona test. And then there were three for the Charlotte test...but the three Daytona cars had stuff come off them to go on the Charlotte cars, so you can't count that as six."
   Only three Daytona cars for his three Daytona 500 drivers? Other teams have three Daytona cars for each of their drivers.
   "We have many other cars in the works, in various stages. Some are still just chassis, some have sheet metal on them, some have been through the first stage of the body shop. They're coming; the process is underway."
   When SpeedWeeks opens, Miller says he will have three cars for each of his three drivers, "plus another two at least, maybe three, at the shop, in case we get into some disaster situations."
   At one time, Miller says, it was good for a team to stockpile cars; now, though, he says "you have to have 'good' cars.
  "We are, even though we have 200 people working here, a small team really. So we can't afford to build an inventory of cars that obsolete quickly. Some other teams are able to stack up a bunch of cars, and if they decide one day 'we don't like those cars, go crush them,' they can do that. We can't."
   The team that can, obviously, is Rick Hendrick's. "They have sheer numbers of people on everybody else," Miller concedes.


   Martin Truex Jr. (R) and Mark Martin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Racing is nothing if not an endless search for more grip. And the 2013s are just the latest chapter.
   "Grip, grip, grip...whether it's mechanical or aero-generated, and the balance of the car, are the two key things in the overall speed of the car," Miller says.  "Whether it's Indy-car, NASCAR or Formula 1.
   "The downforce level with this new car is up. The balance has shifted considerably. And that poses a set of challenges."
   Grip, eh?
   Well, what kind of grip will Goodyear provide?
   "The speeds are up, and I think Goodyear will be pretty diligent about making sure that we have a reliable tire first...and once we establish that, their R&D process will kick back in," Miller says.
   "There will be a lot of tire testing this year, though I don't know if it's firmly scheduled yet.
   "I expect Goodyear to step up to the plate.

    Winning races these days depends a lot on gas mileage and other 'gambles.' Martin says he wants his team to gamble more for wins, by being more 'aggressive.' Bowyer and Pattie gambled and won at times.
   But gambling on fuel mileage can bite back, as Brad Keselowski knows so well, and others.
   "That's a hard thing to quantify, being aggressive," Miller says. "Sometimes 'aggressive' wins races, sometimes it doesn't.
   "Usually the race isn't won by the last pit call, but by things that lead up to that. You put yourself in position to have options that last stop.
   "Race calling is not an exact science. Some days I've looked like a hero, some days like a goat. And anyone who's been up on the box will say that.
   "It's about being able to quickly, and on the fly, assess the odds of what you need to do."

   Another question: how much will NASCAR have to tweak the rules as 2013 rolls along?
   "That's a tough question...because I believe everyone's intention is to have the car remain a stable platform, where we've landed right now. But we still have to go race and see how these cars react around each other," Miller says.
   "...And what kind of races the new cars produce.
   "If they (NASCAR) think they can do things to make that better, whatever that means, then I could see the package changing some."
    Miller says he doesn't anticipate any Chevy versus Ford versus Toyota bickering over the rules.
   "I don't expect the manufacturer thing to come into play for quite a while. The truth of the matter is we have all become a lot more sophisticated, as an industry, in looking at wind tunnel data, and making more valid comparisons.
   "I do believe that, as always happens in this sport, the cream will rise to the top," Miller adds.
   And now it's looking like Waltrip and Miller and these guys are part of that, at long last.

  Scott Miller: he had a great 2012, his first season with Toyota and Michael Waltrip. Now he's hoping to avoid that 'sophomore slump.' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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