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Hey now, this Waltrip dude looks pretty promising....NASCAR's best pitchman is finally over the hump

  Mikey! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Remember Michael Waltrip?
   "Remember when I used to be good in these cars?" the quipster driver-owner says with a laugh. Then he nods toward Brian Vickers, and Waltrip adds "Heck, I've been driving these things since before Brian was even born."
    "And," Vickers himself throws in, almost as a punch line "I've been driving these things for seven years now."
   Ah, Mikey. NASCAR's best TV pitchman, in those ubiquitous NAPA commercials and what all.
   Well, Waltrip has often chided the media for not taking his driving talents that seriously at time. But then he would be quick to use that as part of his routine, pointing out that he went winless for 463 races before he got that first Cup win.
    But behind this sometimes jovial, sometimes brooding exterior, the inner Michael Waltrip can sometimes be seen, if you look hard enough.
   This is the guy who cried in victory lane after breaking that losing streak by winning the biggest race in the sport, the Daytona 500…not because of the win but because of the death just moments earlier of the man who gave him that ride, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
   This is the guy who got on such a running kick that he even made the Boston Marathon.
   This is the guy who, 20 years ago at Bristol, crashed so hard the car literally exploded, with only him in the seat in the middle of track….and the world thought for sure he was dead….until he calmly unbuckled his belts and stood up and looked around to take stock of the carnage.
   Amazing virtually unscathed.
   Yes, this is a guy who has had more than enough highs and lows, highlights and heartbreaks for any three men in this sport.
   Now 46, and with his last tour win back in 2003 at Talladega (part of his hot run back then was as teammate, drafting buddy and 'bodyguard' for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the two played the Daytona-Talladega game remarkably well for a long time), Waltrip is stepping aside, sort of.
   In 2010 he will cut back to a partial schedule, with Martin Truex Jr. (on the pole here for Sunday's Phoenix 500, 315 pm ET start) taking his spot on the full-time roster. Truex is coming over to Michael Waltrip Racing from Chip Ganassi's, where he has rather languished this season, while teammate Juan Pablo Montoya has shined. And Waltrip has pulled off quite a coup in signing wily Pat Tryson as Truex' crew chief. Tryson helped put Kurt Busch (his driver the last three years at Roger Penske's) in victory lane at Texas last weekend, and Busch put Tryson's Dodge on the front row here.
   But the bigger story here with Waltrip is that he has managed to survive as an owner-driver, in a tough, tough business.
   When Toyota decided to step up to the Cup level (its goal in NASCAR, somewhat ironically, is to sell trucks, with a macho made-in-America image, with NASCAR marketing angles and that truck manufacturing facility deep in the heart of Texas, where every home boasts a truck) Waltrip – long a GM-Chevy guy -- signed on. And, for better or worse, he has been an anchor for Toyota…though Toyota signing Joe Gibbs championship outfit has been much more successful (of course Gibbs had a 15-year head start on Waltrip as team owner).
    And if you remember those first few years Waltrip was on his own, well, he has now turned all the doubters into believers. That first season, 2007, Waltrip was caught with something that some called 'jet fuel' in his engine just before Daytona 500 qualifying, and he was quickly embroiled in a raging cheating controversy – he was even docked points before that first race, becoming the first driver to start the season with a points deficit. Then Waltrip went on a dubious run of failing to qualify, week after week after week, until late spring.
   That 2007 season was, well, pretty rough all the way around. And then with raging financial pressures Waltrip went for a business partner, finding investment broker Rob Kauffman, in one of the sport's seemingly stranger alliances. He reshuffled things, brought in Cal Wells to help manager Ty Norris.
   Finally this past May – and yes, it was a rainy Monday – David Reutimann brought Waltrip that first trophy, winning Charlotte's 600.
   Reutimann, in fact, has run rather strong most of the season, and he would have made the chase if not for one or two incidents.
   Reutimann's dry sense of humor well matches Waltrip's. And then when Waltrip made the unexpected move of signing Aussie newcomer Marcos Ambrose, well, this bunch always looks like it's having fun…which is hard over the never-ending season.
    The punch line to all this – Toyota has just announced a contract extension with Waltrip and Company through 2012.
    Now Waltrip-Reutimann-Truex-Ambrose might not quite be a Johnson-Gordon-Martin, and Mikey probably doesn't expect to go 1-2-3 in the Sprint Cup championship run next season.
    But it sure looks like this Waltrip bunch has turned the corner and has got its act together…and is having fun.
   And this type of deal, to be honest, is just what NASCAR executives have been looking for from Detroit – help in launching new teams, finding new drivers, and trying to make them viable and successful.
    The Gibbs guys would be successful in Chevys, Fords, Dodges or Toyotas. And it was for the PR marketing plus of having championship driver Tony Stewart that Toyota did that deal, stealing Gibbs from the Chevy camp.
   But helping make Waltrip and his guys successful at this level, that's been the real challenge.
   And to be blunt, there was a long stretch where it didn't look like Waltrip was going to make it.
   But now he's clearly over the hump (and give credit to Norris and Wells and Kauffman)…and while he may not be driving quite as much next season, he's sure to be seen just as much on all those devilishly humorous TV commercials.
   Waltrip knows the deal here: "Simply put, Michael Waltrip Racing would not exist without Toyota. Toyota put us on the map in 2007."
   Was it really only in 2007 that this thing kicked off? That now seems light-years ago.
   "We have come a long way in a short period of time," Waltrip says.
    Well done, Mikey. Well done.

NASCAR needs teams like MWR

NASCAR needs teams like MWR to ensure that the events are races and not coronations for the Hendricks teams. Michael Waltrip has done an excellent job as an owner so far in a cut throat business. Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way but nobody expected MWR to win races right out of the gate. In the current economy and with a three year commitment from Toyota as well as a solid sponsor line up, MWR now is looked to with some envy, I'll bet, from many other teams. An interesting thing to watch is MWR's connection to F1 team managers and technology, some of which is already in place. Waltrip is looking at bringing a new approach to NASCAR from hiring key F1 people to testing F1 drivers. And, who now is the one best placed to bring Danica to NASCAR after Dale Earnhardt Jr's comments the other day that suggested that his team might end up with her services. That would be MWR wich has tried to sign her up for some time now, including having her talk to some F1 racing types during her recent Europen vacation about what Waltrip is doing in NASCAR. The combination of NASCAR's best salesman and NASCAR's biggest new attraction would be dynamite!

MWR is another great reason

MWR is another great reason to love NASCAR. It started as a bootstrap operation (missing races and struggling to find the right personnel combinations) and now competes for wins - maybe not every week, but they weren't far from putting a team in the chase this year. I was one of the early doubter who didn't think this team would amount to much of anything. I'm happy to be wrong. Reutimann and Ambrose show tremendous potential. I've never thought too much about Truex, but I hope he can bring some more good news to a team that deserves it.

Why would Toyota renew their

Why would Toyota renew their association with an outfit that has only one win (rain-shortened luck),Reutimann's performance is not great and to say he would have made the chase if not for one or two incidents could be said of many other drivers. Michael has brought Toyota bad press with two alcohol incidents since their associations. Simply put Michael has never been a good driver and if you like commercials of a guy making fun of himself-you'll love Michael.

I just want him off my tv for

I just want him off my tv for the truck races so I can enjoy the races! I am so tired of his mouth and constant huckstering and self aggrandizing.

I won't watch a truck race

I won't watch a truck race unless Michael is in the booth! He is a welcome addition to all of the pre/post race coverage.
Thanks for the great article about MWR and Toyota. I hope their alliance is one that will be successful for many years to come.

michael has sold his soul to

michael has sold his soul to toyota,ruined his marriage,alienated friend.tv broadcasts would be better without the waltrip brothers waving the toyota flag.its sad what money has done to people.

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