When millions of people turn on Dancing with the Stars this fall, many will be introduced to Michael Waltrip.
Those unfamiliar with him – non-NASCAR fans, mostly – will become acquainted with the part-time driver and full-time owner, some taking a liking to him due to his ebullient, lively nature. Waltrip’s personality should translate well, especially among the show’s older viewing demographic (come on, you know your non-NASCAR-savvy mom or grandmother will call you all the time to tell you how much she just thinks he’s adorable).
Perhaps Waltrip’s new fans will be moved to try out a NASCAR race, either at the track or on TV. They won’t get much of a look at him inside the car, as his schedule is reduced to just the restrictor plate races these days. But they will get some Waltrip on the race broadcasts from time to time, in addition to being able to root for his team in the Sprint Cup Series.
Only problem? They’ll see the shape it’s in, never see it on TV and potentially never return again.
Two years ago, Michael Waltrip Racing was one of the up-and-coming teams in the Cup garage. From its humble beginnings as a part-time organization and an ill-fated full-time expansion in 2007, one that failed miserably, the team rose to prominence as one of Toyota’s top partners and an outfit that could actually challenge for wins, not just top 20s.
Then came Spingate.
The 2013 fall Richmond post-race result saw Truex booted from the Chase and Bowyer docked considerable positions, penalized after team orders for the No. 15 to purposefully spin out to help the No. 56’s chances of making the postseason got revealed. Truex’s team was gutted, the fallout causing longtime sponsor Napa to depart and, eventually, the No. 56 to cut back to part-time status for the 2014 season, re-emerging as a test team partnered with underdog Jay Robinson. Truex was sent off, banished to perhaps even grayer pastures with Furniture Row Racing, even if he didn’t know it right then.
Yes, the times have certainly changed for Waltrip and his team – and after last weekend, their slump hit a higher level.
MWR enters Chicagoland Speedway without much to crow about. Neither the No. 15 of Bowyer nor the No. 55 of Brian Vickers made the Chase. Both were in contention, Bowyer barely missing out on the final wild card spot to Greg Biffle while Vickers, unfortunately was felled by faulty equipment, a summer slump that sent him too far back in the points. The Jay Robinson-aligned team rarely pops up at the track with funding – and when it’s there, the No. 66 isn’t very good.
Call it a broader issue with the woes of Toyota, which has struggled across the board, but also wonder if we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for Waltrip and co. As it currently stands, the team is on pace to have one of its worst seasons in years.
Entering Chicagoland, MWR cars have managed zero wins, seven top 5s and 18 top 10s. Suddenly, they’re back to 2011-esque levels, when the team was made up of Truex and David Reutimann, plus a part-time Waltrip. In 2011, the organization as a whole had only four top 5s and 16 top 10s, Truex carrying much of that weight.
Make no mistake – the 2014 squad has already bested those numbers and will obviously exceed them even further. But the idea that they could match 2012 or ’13, let alone the lack of Chase berths? Absolutely not, and that’s a problem.
That’s not to say it’s a totally fair comparison. In those two years, the organization had three full-time teams, two populated by the same driver all year and a third, the No. 55, filled out by Mark Martin, Waltrip, Vickers and Elliott Sadler. The more cars one has starting a race, the better chance one has to rack up some top-5 and top-10 stats, in theory.
And sure enough, that’s what they did. In 2012, MWR cars combined for three wins, 24 top 5s and 58 top 10s, with every driver pitching in to some degree. Bowyer was the class of the field, winning the three races and placing second in the standings, announcing the organization as a force to be reckoned with in NASCAR. The next year brought slightly lesser results, but they were still admirable. There were two wins, plus 22 top 5s and 44 top-10 finishes.
But after Spingate, the organization as a whole seemed changed. Even though it still had Bowyer in the Chase, the resources behind him faltered. As a whole, MWR only managed three top-5 finishes during the Chase, along with 11 top 10s. That means out of 30 chances to do so, it could only manage a top 10 just a third of the time, and most of that was due to Bowyer’s Chase performance, which was middling compared to his championship-contending peers. Keep in mind rival Jimmie Johnson has nearly won a third of the Chase races all-time.
Taking a car out of the equation this year certainly hasn’t helped matters, but in 2013, the No. 55 – the lowest on the totem pole that year and closest to the No. 66 in that it featured a cast of rotating drivers – actually contributed. Outside of Vickers’ win, the merry-go-round collected five top 5s and 10 top 10s. Compare those to this year when the No. 66 is prominently Waltrip-operated and the team is still lagging behind considerably.
That’s interesting, because one might have expected it to go differently at the beginning of the season. Losing a competitive team is never easy, but with only two fully-funded cars to worry about, there was the opinion that Waltrip could better focus resources rather than being spread out to three. It’s the same argument people give when a new team announces it’s expanding, even though its one-car operation still isn’t up to snuff – zeroing in on making one team better seems more effective than having to worry about two underperforming.
So September comes at an interesting time for Michael Waltrip. He’s about to be in millions of homes he might not otherwise reach every week as part of Dancing with the Stars, undoubtedly able to gain some new followers for his team even if he’s eliminated early. Given his Napa commercial, where he dresses up like Elvis Presley, it could honestly go either way. But at the same time, he’s presented a conundrum, with zero Chase teams, no win and a test car of sorts going nowhere.
Two years ago, things were looking up for Michael Waltrip. Now, while his showbiz career might still have legs, his racing team may not be so lucky.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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