Waltrip, team, gaining stature

The start of the 2012 season was more than a month away and Michael Waltrip was more than just a little excited as he sat in the lobby of the Daytona 500 Club.

"I remember when I ran my last marathon," Waltrip said with a gleam in his eyes. "I get nutty about goals, and I was passionate about doing it in less than four hours. When you're 40 and 6-foot-5, it's not a target demographic for a marathon runner.

"I got on the treadmill and pushed myself really hard. I trained predominantly that way. Every couple of months, I'd go outside to validate."

You may be wondering what Waltrip training for a marathon and running a Sprint Cup team have in common. In this case, a lot.

New owners succeed in Cup about as often as you see 6-5 racecar drivers preparing for a sub-four-hour marathon at 40. So if you're Waltrip, it made sense to take the same mentality and philosophy that helped him run a sub-four-hour marathon and apply it to building better cars.

With a lot of help from Toyota Racing Development, the backing of financial partner Rob Kaufman and a newfound relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing, Waltrip pushed hard to change things.

Then he took what he learned and helped develop outside to validate.

Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway was a huge validation. Michael Waltrip Racing cars finished third (Martin Truex Jr.), fourth (Clint Bowyer) and fifth (Brian Vickers). It was the best single day in the history of the organization that Waltrip took to the top series in 2007.

This is the best start to a season MWR has had, too. Truex is fourth in points and Bowyer is eighth. The combination of Vickers and 53-year-old Mark Martin, who drove the first three races, in the No. 55, are seventh in owner's points.

The organization has seven top-10s in four races, almost half of the 16 it had in 36 races last season.

There's still a long way to go in this marathon of a season, but Waltrip appears well on his way to achieving more nutty goals.

Hey, the guy went oh-for-462 as a driver before winning his first race, then became a two-time Daytona 500 champion. Why not?

"I didn't like who we were going into '11," said Waltrip, about a month away from turning 49. "I didn't feel our cars were as aerodynamically fit as the competition. Structurally, we didn't have chassis that were as good as other people.

"Rob and I were passionate about pushing Gibbs and MWR closer together to share more information and spend our dollars more wisely and make better sense of what we were spending money on because of them being off doing something and us being off doing something and not sharing."

It wasn't easy. The gap between MWR and JGR was huge this time a year ago, even though JGR at times struggled with speed and engine durability. There were, as TRD president Lee White said, some "cultural differences" between the organizations, as well.

Translated, JGR was used to being Toyota's top dog and doing everything itself, including its own engines. There was no reason to seriously share information with or listen to an organization that wasn't a threat to make the Chase.

But Waltrip, as he did preparing for the marathon, kept pushing. He revamped his philosophy to adopt more of what JGR did. He began building better and faster cars. He began hiring better people.

By the end of last season, Truex in particular was performing better than the Gibbs drivers of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. He had four top-10s in his last five starts and had an average finish of 9.8 during that span compared to 17.7 for the season.

But Waltrip didn't stop there. He replaced David Reutimann, 28th in points, with Martin in a part-time role. He added a third team with perennial Chase contender Bowyer from Richard Childress Racing.

He hired Scott Miller, who was significant in helping RCR turn things around a few years ago, as his vice president of competition. He brought in veteran crew chief Brian Pattie.

Then he took everything outside for a few preseason tests to validate. The cars were so impressive, particularly in wind tunnel tests where White said they were "off the charts," that JGR began to take notice and listen.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody at Gibbs willing to admit much has changed. J.D. Gibbs will tell you they've always been open in sharing information between the two organizations.

But things have changed.

"When the Gibbs guys see what [MWR has] done, they don't ignore it now," White said. "Before, if they were up here on the good side, the Red Bull guys were somewhere in the middle and the Waltrip guys down here, they were like [why listen].

"Suddenly, [JGR is] in the middle and the Waltrip guys are beginning to rescale everything. That is a situation that has been earned by Michael's group."

Many may be surprised by MWR's fast start, but those who have watched this transformation aren't. Martin couldn't tell the difference between his new ride during an early test at New Smyrna Speedway and the one he had the past few years at Hendrick Motorsports.

"They should, with the equipment they have, be contenders to win races," he said before the season.

Bowyer, who was used to top equipment at RCR, said the same thing.

"Anytime you make a change there is a lot of worry," he said. "I kind of put that to rest right before the [Christmas] holiday when I first tested down at Disney. I was pleasantly surprised, and it built a lot of confidence. It kind of put all my worries to bed."

MWR now has the feel and look of a top-tier organization even though it's too early to put it on equal footing with JGR, RCR, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.

"A good bunch of people," Truex said. "We've got three cars that seem to go to the racetrack and run really well each week. We're able to feed off each other. We really showed that [Sunday] all running up front at different parts of the day.

"All season our cars have been strong."

But to be strong all season, or run a sub-four-hour marathon as Waltrip did (3:59:23) in Las Vegas in 2005, you have to keep pushing hard and validating.

The foundation is much stronger now than it was in 2009 when Reutimann won the organization's first race and was a contender to make the Chase much of the season. All three cars now are capable of winning a race. Truex and Bowyer are capable of making the Chase.

"There's stuff there to do it with," Martin said. "It's all about chemistry and people and how things click."

Right now things are clicking very well. Waltrip likes the direction things are headed.

He can't quite see the finish line, but he has a better view of it than ever before.