Waltrip reaches a crossroads
Michael Waltrip sat helpless in the garage as the laps counted down at Richmond last Saturday night. Parked by NASCAR after contact with Casey Mears turned into an ugly, intentional wreck, the 45-year-old veteran could do nothing to save face in the latest of a series of missteps since his self-owned program moved to Toyota in 2007. Frustrated, all he could do was sit and watch as his No. 55 car lost track position like wildfire.
During its two-year existence, Michael Waltrip Racing has been through many trials and tribulations, but none like the hole it's in now. For all the talk about the possible demise of several smaller teams these days, it's Waltrip's three-car program that's in danger of being parked following the season.
The team lost its biggest asset in March when former Cup champion Dale Jarrett retired after five events rather than face a second full season building up a program while running towards the back of the pack. Now his longtime sponsor, UPS, is considering leaving the No. 44 car Jarrett drove following this season. The company is in search of a "rock star" driver for its program and has talked to several big name teams, in addition to Waltrip Racing, to continue its sponsorship in '09. Roush Fenway Racing is on the short list and Penske Racing is believed be there too.
Waltrip Racing's case for retaining UPS grows weaker with each passing race. Currently 32nd in the owner standings, its No. 44 car, now driven by David Reutimann, has yet to score a top 10 finish in its year and a half of existence. That might have been acceptable when Toyota was just starting out its program, but with the manufacturer heading to Victory Lane with Joe Gibbs Racing these days, increased scrutiny has been given to Waltrip Racing's improvement -- or lack thereof.
Reutimann's more than capable, but his results pale to those of a Carl Edwards or even fellow sophomore David Ragan. UPS says it'll make a decision within the next few months; if so, that's not enough time for Reutimann to close the gap on paper.
The news isn't any better on the other side of Waltrip's shop. The team's No. 00 program is running out of time to find a sponsor; after Nationwide backer Aaron's supported the first 10 races, the car shows up barren this weekend for Cup Series rookie Michael McDowell. To date, McDowell's claim to fame is a spectacular crash during Texas Motor Speedway qualifying. That tendency to wreck has carried over to his racing, with the Arizona native spinning out in three of five Cup events thus far. With a best finish of 26th, McDowell has watched his program drop to 31st in the owner standings, and he's in jeopardy of falling outside the top 35.
And there's the perplexing case of Waltrip himself. His self-driven No. 55 program seemed to be improving toward the end of last year -- after missing 11 of the first 12 races, he scored two top-15 finishes over the season's final two months. It seemed he was building on that momentum to start '08, qualifying for the first five events to lock himself into the field for the first time in two years.
It should have been the building block to something more, but while Waltrip's in the show each week, he's hardly been visible. A best finish of 23rd has him ranked just 33rd in those owner standings, close enough that one bad race could put him back in the "Go or Go Home" crowd.
In the past two weeks, word came that championship crew chief Paul Andrews has left the program. Replaced by Bobby Kennedy in March in a surprising move, Andrews was relegated to test team duty. Since then, Kennedy's hardly been the answer; Waltrip's average finish has dropped from 23rd to 30th since his old Busch Series head wrench moved into the role. In the meantime, Andrews went from the next big thing at MWR to the unemployment line in a matter of five months.
Waltrip's just hoping the same thing doesn't happen to his three-car operation. It's been a rocky road this past year and a half, beginning with the team getting caught cheating at Daytona in '07 and including several personal problems along the way, the most bizarre of which was when Waltrip rolled his SUV and left the scene of the crash in April '07.
But this pending disaster may be impossible to walk away from, in more ways than one. It's no secret the driver mortgaged his financial future to move ahead with this program and that he took on an investor (Robert Kauffman) in October to salvage the team's long-term future. But if all three sponsors bail -- this is the final year of NAPA's agreement with the No. 55 -- all the investment money in the world won't keep this program on track. And with a tough economy making sponsorship difficult, this could be the biggest-level program that winds up biting the dust.
Two years ago Waltrip would have hardly envisioned this inglorious ending as he embarked and what should have been the crowning phase of his career. "I am honored to be a part of Toyota's entrance into the sport," he said back then. "Their standards are high and their approach into the sport is well thought out."
Ironically, those lofty standards are what Waltrip has failed to meet from Day One. In the end it could be what leaves him on the outside of the Cup Series looking in.