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Will this work? Michael Waltrip's expansion, with newcomers Max Papis and Marcos Ambrose joining, in technical alliances



Okay, Michael Waltrip (R, with teammate David Reutimann), show us what you've got this season (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


By Mike Mulhern

   Well, it sure looks like 2009 is going to be a season filled with 'what-the-heck-is-going-on-now.'
   Better stick an extra $10 in your pocket to get a program. Or you might feel like Butch Cassidy: Who are those guys?
   One of the new kids on the block – Max Papis.
   Another – Marcos Ambrose.
   How long they last, what they can actually do on the Sprint Cup tour, well, they – and the other newcomers this season – may have to prove themselves as fast as they can, or else they'll be back on the sidelines. That puts a lot of pressure on the new guys…and a lot of pressure on the veterans, who will have to keep an eye out for them.
   Papis, of course, isn't new to the American racing scene, just to NASCAR. The well-known sports car racer, from Como, Italy, on the sunny side of the Alps, in one of the most picturesque parts of Europe, is 39, and he's been banging around the fringes of NASCAR for a couple of years, after running Indy cars and a little Formula One. Once tagged 'Mad Max' for some of his escapades, Papis is now a Toyota project, a switch from Chevrolet (why that car maker dropped him is unclear).
   Papis, the son-in-law of Emerson Fittipaldi, drove Sonoma last summer and Watkins Glen for the Chevy team Tony Stewart now owns.
races in the 2009 Sprint Cup.
   This season he's got an 18-race Cup deal with the Germain brothers (Bob, Richard and Stephen), who have made a name for themselves on NASCAR's Truck tour and who have been trying to crack Cup for a while.
   Get to know this guy – if only because you'll probably see him on a lot of Geico TV commercials.
   "It is going to be a learning season," Papis says, in understatement.
   Not only because he's now in the Big Leagues, but because he's sharing "an affiliation" with Michael Waltrip Racing, one of Toyota's NASCAR anchors but an operation that has been little short of a dismal flop so far.


Max Papis, taking another shot at NASCAR, this time with Toyota, after splitting with Chevrolet (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


Yes, Waltrip himself did bite off a lot when he jumped into Cup with a three-car team and a lot of optimism…and, yes, he's really not got all that much to show for it, except David Reutimann's performances. And, yes, Waltrip just announced a few days ago that if he himself can't get the job done this season, then this season might be his last as a driver (though few really believe that).
   How much Papis can learn from Waltrip's operation, which is still trying to turn the corner (maybe that new Formula One engineer can help), is not clear.
    But then maybe the Germains' operation can help in the technology side, since they've done so well in Trucks.  

    Reutimann says the weak NASCAR economy may actually be a blessing for some here like Ambrose and Papis: "It gives opportunity for some new teams to come in, like Marcos' team and the guys over at Germain -- teams that may not have had the opportunity before.
   "It's going to be something new for the sport.
   "The doors have been closed for those organizations before, because there were so many teams, and they maybe didn't feel they had a legitimate shot.
    "Now things are different.
    "And you may see the next new powerhouse team come out of the ashes of this deal and be off and running."
   Of course Reutimann would like for his team to be part of that.
   And what to make of Reutimann?
   The popular, friendly Reutimann, son of racing legend Buzzy Reutimann, has shown a great work ethic and a lot of talent during his two seasons on the Cup trail. But he hasn't had that much success yet, and losing UPS as sponsor was a hard blow to the entire operation, given the years of support Dale Jarrett provided.
    This season Reutimann's car will, perhaps ironically, be dubbed 'the Dream Machine.'
    And Reutimann is nothing if not optimistic.
   He's got a new crew chief, Rodney Childers. And he says last season the Waltrip operation "got stronger throughout the year. We made pretty good gains.  And our newer cars are even better than the ones we had last year."
   Reutimann got to check that out during a tire test at Texas Motor Speedway a few weeks ago. Goodyear is inviting four drivers to each tire test, one from each manufacturer; and Goodyear engineers are giving the crew chiefs ample time and practice to set their cars up before the tire test actually gets under way. That's a good policy on Goodyear's part, providing better data; last year most drivers and crew chiefs struggled with the new car-of-tomorrow, and NASCAR has steadfastly refused to make any changes in the design to make things any better.
   Certainly Toyota executives probably have the Waltrip operation on a short leash and are pushing to get things going in the right direction.  
   "We just need to be more consistent," Reutimann says.
    "Last year we had flashes of brilliance -- where we could run well, run in the top-10 and top-five, and have good finishes. But we need to do it on a more consistent basis.
    "We made a really, really big jump with a new car -- a lighter car. When we unloaded, we were a lot better.
    "Making that big a leap again is going to be difficult. Gains in this sport are made not by miles but by inches."
   Reutimann, like many Cup stars, will be doing double-duty in Saturday's Nationwide races, trying to help that struggling series, while trying to get some lap time – which this season, with NASCAR's testing ban, will be at a premium.



Aussie Marcos Ambrose: NASCAR Thunder-from-down-under (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


Ambrose? He's one of the brightest of the sport's newcomers. In fact he was a stunner last season the road courses for the Woods, nearly winning at Watkins Glen.
   Roundy-rounds, though, have been more of a problem for him.
   Regardless, Ambrose has to be one of the most fun guys to hang around with…..unless you're out on the track with him, where he tends to shoot first and ask questions later, leaving a trail of aggravated rivals in his wake.
     "I'm in my fourth year of NASCAR, and everything is still relatively new. I just wanted a place where I could really see what I was missing… or what I had," the Australian racer says.
    "Having David and Michael and Max to work with and reference off, that will give me a great judgment of where I'm at.
   "When you get to the Cup level, there's nowhere to hide.
     "I did 11 Cup races last year, and I realized I needed to do more, physically and mentally, to be ready."
   Ambrose, 32, will working for the new team that Brad Daugherty and Tad Geschickter have planned: "We are trying to start up a new Cup team, and we didn't have the resources, or infrastructure, ourselves to do any justice to that," Ambrose says. "So we've partnered with Michael Waltrip….and we've taken their car from last year, with the points -- which is really going to help us out. 
    "We've got all of the technical expertise Michael can provide, and we're basically building the cars and he's running the team for us."

    Toyota last year had a great season….or did it?
   Much of the 26-race regular season was dominated by Toyota's Kyle Busch, who dueled Ford's Carl Edwards week after week, and who won an amazing 21 national NASCAR events, in Cup, Nationwide and Truck.
   But Busch tanked in the championship playoffs with an early string of DNFs that doomed his title bid.
   While Kyle Busch headlined, and Tony Stewart looked strong much of the season, along with third teammate Denny Hamlin, when it was all over, Chevy's Jimmie Johnson won the Sprint Cup championship, for a third straight season.
   Elsewhere in the Toyota camp, things didn't look nearly so good as at Joe Gibbs'.
   So was it the Gibbs guys making Toyota look good?
   Joey Logano, now in Stewart's ride, with star crew chief Greg Zipadelli, may tell the tale. But without testing time, Logano may be slower developing than otherwise….which will surely put pressure on NASCAR officials to rethink that testing ban.

Ed Laukes (R), Toyota marketing man, here with David Reutimann, says his company's Daytona 500 marketing focus will be on Kyle Busch (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


With Kyle Busch's success, little wonder that Toyota's marketing team plans to make him "a focal point of our initial advertising, starting at Daytona," Toyota's Ed Laukes says.
   "We just filmed a commercial that is going to debut within the Daytona 500 (telecast), and David Reutimann has a piece within it.
   "All members of the Toyota family are important…but with the success Kyle had last year, we're going to focus on that….initially."
   And a key to NASCAR's early season success – in ticket sales and TV ratings – may be linked to the marketing side of this sport as much as the on-track performances.
   The economy overall is grim. "We can't go anywhere but up, at this point, the way things look right now," Laukes says.
   "I would say that that is the positive side."
   How much NASCAR cutbacks will hurt is unclear, of course. "When we hit a rough patch like this -- while it's very unfortunate, and we have to cut budgets, not only in the motorsports marketing program but in all of our marketing programs -- it really sets us up for a rebound year when the economy comes back and the industry comes back."
    Papis, on the other hand, says "my feeling on all this negativity is actually the opposite: Everyone needs dreams. 
   "When I was a kid, I needed a dream, I wanted to dream -- I wanted to go to the race track and see my heroes.
   "The economic situation is super-tough, but people still want to dream. You want to go to the track and enjoy yourself."
   And Papis says it's time for Americans to stop feeling sorry for themselves: "The real big problems are not here. Look at Africa…or look at how many millions die of cancer every day. 
    "Those are big problems. Those are things we need to focus on. 
    "Giving this dream to people like me, and my teammates -- to go out and try to achieve our goals in life, it's huge.
    "Things come and go….and maybe some people might not like to hear this, but this is sort of 'purifying' the sport.
    "Whoever is going to stay are the people who love the sport, because they have to take pay cuts and work harder.
     "I'm ready to do whatever it takes to establish myself in NASCAR.
     "And whoever wants to prove a point is going to be here and work his tail off to show he belongs."


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