CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Martin Truex Jr. sensed something when he visited Michael Waltrip Racing during his free-agency tour last season. It was an atmosphere that made him believe not only did employees like working there, but they truly believed they could win.
"It felt good to me," he said.
MWR went from an organization on the brink of crumbling two years ago, with no wins, one top-5 and eight top-10s, to one of promise in 2009, with a win, nine top-5s and 19 top-10s. It went from a financially unstable organization with sponsors bailing to a strong one that has sponsors optimistic.
David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose (satellite JTG Daugherty) led the charge, finishing 16th and 18th in points. Reutimann gave the organization its first win in the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and went from four top-10s to 10.
Fourteen races into the season he was 11th in points and considered a serious threat to make NASCAR's 12-driver playoff. He remained in contention until a few races before the 26-race cutoff and is cautiously optimistic he can make the field this season.
"We're definitely getting closer," Reutimann said. "To say that, 'Hey, we're there,' I don't know that any team in the garage can say they're there, especially judging from the last couple of years.
"But I definitely think we're a lot closer, and we have more of a clear-cut direction of how to get there."
Ambrose wasn't a serious threat to make the Chase in his first full season, but he turned a lot of heads with a third at Sonoma and second at Watkins Glen. He turned even more with a third at Bristol.
The Chase in 2010 is a realistic goal.
"You've got to have some luck on your side and you've got to consistently perform, and we do have to do our job well," Ambrose said. "I believe if we do our job well and put ourselves in good position we can contend for the Chase, no doubt."
The addition of Truex and veteran crew chief Pat Tryson will help. Truex knows what it takes to make the Chase, having made the field in 2007 and coming close again in 2008 with a 15th-place finish for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
No offense, but those numbers are a far cry better than having Waltrip battle to stay in the top 35, as he has the past four seasons.
"They will push me a great deal," Reutimann said of Truex and Ambrose. "It's very important to have teammates that push you. You want competition within, but you don't want the competition to undermine what you're trying to build."
The fresh start will be good for Truex, who was frustrated by five crashes that led to DNFs and various mechanical breakdowns that left him with 22 finishes of 20th or worse in equipment Juan Pablo Montoya proved was Chase-worthy.
The transition to MWR has gone smoother than Truex thought. You can see the renewed enthusiasm in his demeanor.
"Everybody at MWR has welcomed me with open arms," Truex said. "They've been very good to work with, very straightforward, very fair and a lot of fun."
Performance aside, Waltrip has been the key to maintaining energy around an organization that two years ago could have fallen apart had he not brought in financial partner Rob Kauffman.
Waltrip has continued to upgrade key personnel with additions such as Tryson.
"Pat Tryson made my whole ownership worthwhile one day during the offseason when he said we have everything here to win with," said Waltrip, who is scheduled to run in only the Daytona 500 and a few Truck Series races for Billy Ballew Racing. "He said we can win a championship. Here!
"He just left Roger Penske, and that team has been racing 20 years, and we've been at it for three and he seems to think MWR has all the tools to win. That's so rewarding to hear."
Those are the things Truex saw and heard the first day he walked through the doors of MWR.
"They don't want to just do their jobs," he said. "They want to do it the best they can and they want to go out and win. I felt that the first time I came in here and I still do."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.