CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Waltrip Racing made a commitment last season to become a player in NASCAR's top series — an effort that would require more money, more people and a change in philosophy for the entire organization.
The team isn't ready to declare mission accomplished, but its strong showing last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway proved MWR is headed in the right direction. Martin Truex Jr. finished third on Sunday, Clint Bowyer was fourth and Brian Vickers, in his first start of the year, finished fifth.
Three cars in the top five, for a team that had four top-fives all of last year.
And, through the first month of the season, MWR has seven top-10 finishes. Last year's total? 15.
Truex credited team owners Waltrip and Rob Kauffman for pushing the organization to be better and enlisting manufacturer Toyota for help.
"Michael and Rob really took a step back as an organization ... kind of restructuring how we did things," Truex said. "We started building some new cars. ... Toyota had a lot of influence on the direction we headed. Really kind of started from scratch almost."
Among the wholesale changes made to the organization was the addition of Scott Miller, who left his job as competition director for Richard Childress Racing.
The organization expanded to three cars by signing Clint Bowyer, whom Miller had worked with at RCR, and crew chief Brian Pattie. And, in a move that was somewhat controversial at the time, the owners told David Reutimann with less than a month to go in the season that he was being let go at the end of the year.
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in NASCAR history, signed on to run 26 races in Reutimann's car.
Although the upgrades have helped tremendously, Miller doesn't believe the team had all that far to go.
"I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door," he said. "Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do."
It's still a long way from the beginning, when MWR launched amid much fanfare in 2007 only for Waltrip to fall flat on his face. He was embroiled in a cheating scandal at season-opening Daytona 500, struggled to get any of MWR's cars into races and quickly ran out of money.
Kauffman, an investment fund manager and racing enthusiast, saved the team later that year when he bought into the organization and pumped in the cash Waltrip needed to stay afloat.
Although the team stayed in business, it struggled to compete with the NASCAR elites.
MWR has yet to put a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and Reutimann's two victories — the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009 and at Chicago in 2010 — are the only wins for the organization.
So the decision to be better was made, and it began in earnest last summer when MWR began building new cars. Once they hit the track, Truex's results picked up and he closed the year with a third-place finish — behind champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards — in the season finale at Homestead.
"He was definitely a factor at Homestead. We beat everybody except the two who were going for the championship," Miller said. "Martin started showing up in the results column, and if not, he showed up in the competitive column."
Bowyer, who called Sunday a "heck of a day for MWR," said the way Truex closed out last season has carried into this year for the organization.
"These MWR cars have been good ever since Truex was running good at the end of last year," he said.
The addition of Martin, who has 40 career Cup wins and is a five-time championship runner-up, can't be overlooked. He provides valuable input in weekly competition meetings and is a sounding board for anyone who needs an ear.
"Probably one of the things that he's brought is confidence in the team," Truex said. "When he comes in there and says, 'Man, I really like these race cars, I like what you guys are doing,' I think that makes a pretty big impact. He hasn't been there very long. When he says you've got good race cars, he gives your team good direction."
Miller finds value in what Martin can offer beyond setups and strategy.Comment on this story
"It's just nice to have somebody with that many years in the sport and that much wisdom," Miller said. "I will talk to him more about the philosophy of what to do with the company more than the car or the setup. He's able to relay all the things he's seen from different teams over the years, and that's the things I talk to Mark about."
Next up is Sunday's race at California, and all eyes will be on MWR to see if it can follow-up on its Bristol showing. Miller is being cautious about what to expect going forward.
"You've got to be realistic because those kind of days (Bristol) are few and far between no matter if its MWR or Hendrick Motorsports," Miller said. "You can't expect all three of your teams to be that good on the same day because the reality is it doesn't happen very often.
"Everybody is pleased with the way we performed, but everybody also knew it was time to get back to work. In this sport, as fast-paced as it is, there's not a lot of time to celebrate. We've got to keep moving forward."