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Waltrip team getting it right in 2009

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- A crumpled piece of blue-painted sheet metal sporting Michael McDowell's signature rests on a table behind Ty Norris' desk. It is a souvenir from the section above the driver's door of the Sprint Cup car that went end over end in a horrific, death-defying crash during qualifying a year ago at Texas Motor Speedway.

It also could be a reminder of what Michael Waltrip Racing looked like then.

A train wreck.

The best finish among the organization's three teams two days later was owner Michael Waltrip's 31st. McDowell was 33rd in a backup car. David Reutimann was 41st with a blown engine.

The highest-ranked driver in the points standings after the race was Reutimann at 28th. Waltrip was 32nd, and McDowell was well behind both in his second race after replacing retired Dale Jarrett.

"We had so many problems," said Norris, the general manager of MWR. "There were times when you wondered if it was insurmountable, if you'd ever really recover from the task we'd taken on."

Reutimann laughed.

"Depression would have been a good term," he said. "We were depressed with the way things were going. We couldn't seem to get over the hump. As hard as we were working, we weren't seeing any results."

Until now.

Fast-forward to this week's race at Texas. Reutimann is 11th in points, a serious contender to be among the 12 drivers who make the Chase. His improvement of 17 spots from this time a year ago ranks No. 1 among all drivers.

Second? That would be Waltrip. He is 17th in points and already has three finishes of 15th or better. A year ago at this time his best finish was 23rd and his average finish was 29.3.

Then there's Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daugherty Racing car that has been under the MWR umbrella since the organizations formed a technical alliance for competitive and financial benefits. The two-time Australian V8 Supercar champion is 21st with one top-10 and three finishes of 17th or better. In 11 starts a year ago for multiple teams, he had only one finish better than 18th.

If NASCAR were passing out an early award for most improved organization, MWR would win easily.

It has gone from a fourth- or fifth-tier organization to competing with Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing for the top second-tier spot behind the elite quartet of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

The energy and productivity inside the walls of this 140,000-square-foot facility feel like that of a successful organization.

"They're definitely coming on strong," said Scott Miller, the crew chief for Jeff Burton at RCR. "They are somebody we have to contend with."

This didn't happen overnight, although it might seem that way. The turnaround actually began a year ago when Nick Hughes was hired in April 2008 to bring the engineering department in line with those of the top teams. He was followed by Mike Clark, who has helped build lighter and more aerodynamically sound bodies.

Then came Steve Hallam, who was part of five world championships as the former head of race operations at the McLaren Formula One team. In his role as the director of competition, he has instilled a sense of organization and structure that was sorely lacking.

"We went into '08 with a lot of unrealistic expectations with our competition department," Waltrip said. "They felt like they'd made changes to the cars that would make them very competitive, and quite honestly they weren't.

"Then we had to regroup and go in a new direction and figure out what went wrong."

A lot has gone wrong since Waltrip became an owner/driver in 2007, starting with his first race, when NASCAR discovered an illegal substance in the engine of his car.

From there, it went downhill with cars failing to qualify, major sponsors leaving and money evaporating so fast the company was in danger of closing its doors until financial partner Robert Kauffman came on board in October 2007.

"This is not even dramatic, but if it weren't for Rob Kauffman, there is a good chance we never would have had this chance to show what we're doing," Norris said.

Waltrip sighed at the thought.

"Everything I have, everything I've ever been careerwise is within these walls," he said. "I couldn't imagine it would just go away. I never considered closing the doors, but there's probably people smarter than me that would bet we would have to do that."

"Bitch session"

Drivers, crew chiefs and key management are huddled in a large conference room overlooking the shop for the weekly Monday competition meeting. Everybody's eyes are on Hallam.

"For two years, that was nothing more than a two-hour bitch session," Norris said. "That's all it was. All people wanted to do was bitch."

Hallam didn't know much about NASCAR when he left his native England except what he had watched on television. But what he lacked in knowledge, he more than made up for with organizational skills.

He runs meetings much like a teacher with a ruler, ready to strike anybody who turns the focus away from his lesson plan.

"I feel like I'm supposed to sit there and sit straight up in my chair and pay strict attention or I'll get called out," Waltrip said with a laugh. "They're very structured and very disciplined.

"There was a time in not-too-distant history where me or Ty or Cal [Wells] or somebody was supposed to be overseeing the meeting but no one really was."

Hallam gets a lot of teasing about his accent and customs. Reutimann -- who some say surpassed Waltrip as the organization's top funny guy when he dubbed himself "The Franchise" after hearing the NFL's Carolina Panthers had put a franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers -- jokingly asks whether he drinks a daily tea with his pinkie out.

But nobody kids Hallam about the way he runs the show.

"He does have the structure," Reutimann said. "He brings everybody together and makes us look at things differently. We're able to focus a lot better on what we have to do."

Hallam doesn't tolerate bitching. He deals in progress.

"He said we were not going to spend two hours identifying the problems," Norris said. "He spends most of that time solving and fixing and moving forward."

Driver are required to be at all meetings, not just at the shop but at the track, where Hallam will hold five or more sessions per weekend.

"There'll be more productivity in that two hours than there was in two months in prior meetings," said Norris, who no longer feels his presence is necessary in the meetings.

Hallam didn't judge MWR on its past. He saw only the potential for what is happening now.

"My years in Formula One, if they taught me anything at all, they taught me that organization is more than 50 percent of what you need when you're going racing," Hallam said. "Sure, you need great drivers, good engineers, a lot of innovation and clever thinking.

"But you also need an organization to back it up and hold it together. That's where I'm starting from."

Texas two-step

If you thought MWR was in bad shape after the 2008 Texas race, you should have seen it a year earlier. Waltrip had failed to qualify for five straight races and had been charged with reckless driving and failing to report an accident after he crashed a mile from his North Carolina home.

No team driver was better than 37th in points.

"I've never seen a man more down, particularly a man who was supposed to have so much confidence," Norris said. "I really wondered if mentally we could all handle it. It was draining on all of us."

The organization had looked a few months earlier as though it had all the makings to be successful. It had the full support of new manufacturer Toyota, former Cup champion Jarrett, and top sponsors such as UPS, NAPA, Burger King and Domino's.

It had transformed an old movie theater into a showcase called "Waltrip Racing World."

"We really built a nice movie set," Norris said. "Once you went past the set and looked, you'd see a lot of it was held up by two-by-fours. We didn't have a lot of depth. When we had an issue here and an issue there, our lack of depth was magnified."

Waltrip likes to compare the start to a scene from the movie "Tin Cup" in which Kevin Costner tells the character played by Don Johnson that he parred in with a 7-iron. Asked why he did that, Costner replied, "Because I can."

"We started with absolutely nothing," Waltrip said. "One might ask why would you want to do that. And the reason was, because I could. That was my opportunity, my chance to be a car owner."

Teamwork

One by one, blue T-shirts with the words "Teamwork divides the task and multiplies the success" were passed out on the shop floor. Like the crumpled sheet metal was a reminder of past failures, this was a reminder of future promise.

Waltrip hoped this is how it would be when he said before the season that he'd retire as a driver if he didn't show marked improvement.

He had a couple of motives behind the statement. One was to make people realize he was serious about performance. The other was to let people know this was a significant season not just for him but for the organization.

"I hoped people would notice when we did run up front and run competitively," he said.

People can't help but notice.

"It's easy to see the improvement," said Tony Stewart, who is seventh in points as a first-year driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Such compliments mean more to Waltrip than anything. As much as he likes to make fun of himself and his personality, he hates it when other people make fun of him, as RCR's Clint Bowyer did last season when referring to him as "the worst driver in NASCAR -- period."

"I've always been proud of what we were trying to do," Waltrip said. "I probably feel a little better about where it is today than ever before."

He should, and Sunday's race at Martinsville was a prime example. Waltrip finished 13th despite getting spun out early. Ambrose finished 14th without brakes. Reutimann ran in the top 10 most of the day and finished 20th after being wrecked late.

A year ago, Reutimann would have been thrilled with a top-20 and Waltrip would have felt as though he had won his third Daytona 500 with three cars that high.

"Used to, we'd leave a race and it was, 'Well, we should have done this and this better,' but we really didn't now how to fix it," Reutimann said. "Now, we have a clear path on how to make things better."

Reutimann saw that potential when deciding whether to re-sign with MWR or go elsewhere at the end of last season. Ambrose saw it when JTG-Daugherty worked a deal that would allow MWR to supply all the cars, engineering and support in exchange for a driver, sponsor and rent.

"I've been around good race teams and bad race teams," said Ambrose, who has finished 10th and 14th the past two weeks. "This place has all the ingredients. It's got good resources, good people and good equipment.

"I just had a feeling this place could really do something."

That wasn't the feeling a year ago at Texas. In many ways, the organization had become a joke, a bigger disaster than McDowell's mangled car that resides in a building adjacent to the main shop.

"I would say our whole organization was wrapped up in that crumpled, wadded-up sheet metal in Texas," Norris said. "You were like, 'We're kind of a mess right now.'

"I have to tell you that now, for a lot of people for the first time, you're proud to be a part of the organization and proud to wear the logos and be here."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.