Meet the new boss at Michael Waltrip's: competition director Scott Miller (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Miller was the architect of the Childress turnaround two years ago.
Can he work the same magic with Waltrip?
Waltrip and business partner Rob Kauffman are confident. And Miller likes the challenge.
A little history here:
Miller grew up racing bikes in the AMA, raced a little NASCAR Winston West, moved to the Indy-car world as crew chief, then moved to North Carolina to work as team engineer for Robby Gordon, Jeff Green, Ricky Craven and Kevin Harvick, finally getting the nod to take over as crew chief for Jeff Burton in 2006. With Miller at the helm Burton made a strong bid for the Sprint Cup championship down the stretch in 2008. When the Childress operation hit a slump in 2009, Miller was given the role of competition director.
So why did Miller make this latest move?
"That had nothing to do with Richard and his team; it had to do with the opportunity that was presented to me here -- Michael and Rob Kauffman have a huge passion, which they related to me, to take this to the next level," Miller says.
"At this point in my career, it was a challenge I was willing to accept. Now I'm going to try to do good by them.
"It's an exciting challenge. And sometimes you just need to relight a fire within yourself. And this place has kind of done it for me."
Miller looks to have the bullets in the gun: hard-charging Clint Bowyer, also over from the Childress camp; cagey veteran Mark Martin, over from a successful stint with Rick Hendrick; and Martin Truex Jr., anxious to run well enough early on to re-sign his sponsor.
As the guy who gives the Waltrip project legitimacy (though Miller himself declines to see it like that), Miller -- an engineer and one-time Indy-car specialist -- says "I've come in and been pleasantly surprised to find what they've been building here the last five years....and hopefully I can do my part.
"We have an exciting driver lineup, the cars have shown some performance, we have good support from Toyota. We have a lot of the ingredients we need to take this thing to the next level."
The next level...
And Toyota itself may be one big question at the moment. Last season wasn't a great one for the brand in NASCAR, and engines were an issue. And the Joe Gibbs operation, a fellow Toyota team, had issues too last year.
Plus, the Waltrip operation itself has been running quite a while now without great success.
How much pressure is there on Michael Waltrip Racing to finally start producing big this season?
"I don't know if 'pressure' is the word, but there are certainly expectations, here and at Joe Gibbs," Miller says.
"We've been doing a lot of work together with Gibbs through TRD (Toyota's in-house engineering arm), and I think that is going to raise both programs a notch. We have some projects we're working on together.
"We are really expecting to have some success this year."
How long a honeymoon here?
How long till a turnaround?
"Well, that depends on your definition of 'turning it around,'" Miller says. "If somebody expects within six months we'll be the rival of Hendrick Motorsports, well that's an unreasonable expectation.
"We have to take small steps, to improve the organization, to improve the systems. That will hopefully, in turn, allow us to have a more consistent product every week.
"I don't expect this to be an overnight sensation...but we did show enough speed last fall. And if we can put reliable cars on the track and keep the drivers pumped up, and not have a bunch of wrecks, if things go right then it is a realistic goal to put a car in the chase"
Waltrip, the boss, has always had a penchant for going his own way, doing his own thing. Will that work here?
Miller says to put things in perspective:
"What people have to recognize is that Gibbs and Childress are very, very mature organizations (with more than 20 years on the tour), while this organization that has undergone very rapid growth over (just) a five-year period of time.
"And you can't expect an organization so young to have dotted every i and crossed every t in such a short period.
"So what I've tasked myself with is bringing some of what I've seen and instill those concepts here.
"This is a very nice organization, but it still has to go through another level of maturing before we can really be a championship contender."
The Toyota engines? Miller says he's not worried.
"I saw it from the outside looking in last year, and really the only inside look I've had came in the last three races of last season and in pre-season testing," Miller says. "From my perspective, we (Waltrip) had no failures, and we ran very well at Homestead and Texas (two notorious engine-killing tracks). And you can't do those things if you're very far off.
"I've been out to TRD (Toyota's own engineering operation) in California, and they have a really impressive facility, and they're working very hard.
"But one thing I don't think people realize is the Toyota engine is now the oldest engine in the (NASCAR) marketplace; hopefully they will be able to introduce another engine design, though not in 2012. And with what they've learned after their first crack at it (the new engine), they're not far off. And the next new design will put us on par, as good or better than everybody.
"But with the current engine I think we can get the job done."
The changeover to fuel injection this season is a major question mark in many NASCAR engine rooms.
Miller says Toyota's Indy-car background in fuel injection may help. "And that goes all the way back to IMSA, with fuel injection," Miller says.
"Now this (NASCAR version) is not really designed around fuel injection; it was designed for engine with carburetors, with fuel injection sort of patched on to it. NASCAR has tried to design a (fuel injection) system that is equivalent for the various manufacturers. For example, there were different injector placements that would have better for GM (engines); but NASCAR had to come up with something that worked for everybody without giving anyone a distinct advantage. And I think they've come up with a good package, though the proof will be in the racing.
"Everybody has a lot of miles on it, but we haven't seen it in a race yet. I'm excited about the potential of it for the future, but I do have some serious reservations about racing it this year, simply because we haven't seen it in race conditions, and we don't know what problems are lurking around the corner. Any time you introduce something new, there is a high probability that something will jump up and bite somebody. I just hope it doesn't become problematic; that's my only concern.
"The way I see NASCAR letting this EFI thing play out is they will give everyone some leeway in the beginning, to make sure everyone gets it worked out. Then they'll take a look at where everybody is, and then start to lock some things down.
"But in the beginning there will likely be more freedom the mapping. Maybe, maybe not; but that's the way I see it going."
Fuel injection isn't the only question as crews pack up for Daytona SpeedWeeks. NASCAR execs are determined to try to eliminate the two-car draft, and some are worried the rules changes NASCAR may push in that could backfire.
Miller, for one, says he's worried about NASCAR too tightly regulating engine operating temperatures. NASCAR's thinking is that by creating a scenario where engines in a two-car draft will overheat, that will force drivers to back off, and create the big ol' pack draft again.
"They'll alter the grill openings and pop-off values....but I'm a little concerned about that, because if you remember back when we had big pack racing, we would all run the grills wide-open, as big as we could....as still you'd have to bail out of the pack because you were overheating," Miller frets.
"So I'm concerned they're trying to stop something by making us overheat....and that will just create another problem.
"But we'll see when we get to Daytona. And we'll adjust. That's one thing about NASCAR, they're not afraid to make a change."
The new Ford FR9 engine showed last season that it's superior cooling design could be a clear plus at Daytona.
"Yes, that's true, it is a better cooling engine and it can run at a higher temperature," Miller concedes. "But if the pressure relief value blows off at 20 pounds (PSI), then it doesn't matter how hot your engine can run.
"And once the value blows off, that starts a sequence of events that no one wants to deal with."
So how long can two cars hook up at Daytona in a tandem draft? Five laps, 25 laps?
Miller says that might not really be clear until the 500 itself. "When two teammates can practice on their own, they can swap any time they want to," Miller says. "But in the race, when you've got other cars around you, you can't just say 'Oh, I need to swap now.' You're stuck.
"So it will present problems for drivers that we haven't even seen yet. We don't have any practice racing with the new rules."
But Miller says he's not worried about any team sandbagging a trick or two until the 500 itself: "Because once you see somebody doing something, the cat is out of the bag, and everyone can do it."