Wade Payne, File, Associated Press
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.
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