Waltrip not ready to panic over recent struggles, lackluster results
Since a strong finish in Las Vegas, Michael Waltrip Racing has struggled mightily
David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. have been at the mercy of bad racing luck
With a 10.9 average finish this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the favorite at 'Dega
There is no change in the DEFCON level at Michael Waltrip Racing, no jump in any color-coded advisory scale within the bowels of the team's Cornelius, N.C., headquarters.
Despite a frustrating stretch by drivers Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann over the last month, owner Michael Waltrip insists that nobody is panicking.
"It's my job and it's our key players' jobs to make sure that we don't panic and know that the cars were pretty good a month ago and the only thing we've done is improve them," Waltrip said. "We just have to take that knowledge and that confidence and go fight."
The former startup team, which entered the year seemingly poised to challenge the Sprint Cup Series' major players on a consistent basis, left Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6 in great shape. Truex was sitting seventh in the points and Reutimann had his first lead-lap finish of the year, running a respectable 13th.
But since leaving the Nevada desert, MWR has struggled with both misfortunes and inconsistencies.
Truex has stumbled all the way to 21st in the standings, largely behind consecutive horrific crashes. At Martinsville, Truex's throttle stuck going into a corner and he collided with Kasey Kahne's car before a near head-on hit into the Turn 3 wall -- Waltrip revealed Truex told him "as soon as he left off the gas and it was hung wide open, he thought he was going to die" -- and last Sunday at Texas he got loose after being nudged by Kevin Harvick and slammed into the wall before collecting Mark Martin and Regan Smith.
Meanwhile, Reutimann has shown signs of progress but hasn't been consistent enough to make up for bad finishes and hasn't been able to rise higher than 26th in points. He qualified eighth at Martinsville, coming in 15th and had another top-20 at Fontana, but had his fourth effort of 29th or worse at Texas as he collided with Joey Logano on pit road and finished five laps down.
"It's racing," Waltrip said. "It's important for me and it's important for Martin and it's important for Reutimann to show the men and women at MWR that it's just that, it's just racing luck."
But more than anything, Waltrip believes he can rely on Truex and Reutimann to keep things in perspective as MWR tries to find its footing after a month of erratic results.
"We're in this together and it's important that they show that leadership," he said. "I say that because I got down on bad performances or racing luck and it ended my career. Between the pressure of owning a team and trying to drive and not being as competitive as I needed to be, I basically gave up and said 'OK, I need some help.' I got help in the form of Martin Truex. ... It took so much pressure off of me and allowed me to focus on running the team and now I get to race occasionally and I'm just happy.
"We have to keep that same attitude in our guys. Martin and David have to combine -- it's not easy and I'm very well aware of that -- they have to combine what happened last week and turn a page and say 'We'll get 'em this week' and mean it from the bottom of their heart."
Talladega would seem the perfect place for MWR to turn that page. In last fall's race Reutimann finished in fourth, while Truex was sixth, but neither driver was consistently strong in the two-car drafts which defined the Daytona 500 and which will make a return on Daytona's sister track this Sunday. Still, Waltrip believes the team can rely on those past results at the Big One, even if the style of racing has changed since the series' last trip to Alabama.
"It's definitely different but if you're been good at those types of places, you'll figure it out," said Waltrip, who himself will be behind the wheel for the first time since Daytona as he pilots a Toyota baring an Auburn paint scheme. "I've told people the hardest thing about any race is the other 42 a**holes that are on the track. They're the ones that make it difficult, not the circuit necessarily."
It's been 24 races since MWR last reached Victory Lane as Reutimann won last in July in Chicagoland. But Waltrip's not panicking. After all, he knows a thing or two about keeping your cool amid a drought as he famously went 462 events before breaking his own dry spell.
"If we can continue to make a little bit of improvement each week and we don't run into anything and things don't go wrong, we'll win," Waltrip said.
MWR is no stranger to projects. This week Travis Pastrana took another step toward his July 30 Nationwide Series debut as he climbed into one of the series' cars for the first time in a private testing session at Virginia's Motor Mile Speedway.
There has been some speculation that Waltrip, who joined with the X-Games legend to form Pastrana-Waltrip Racing, could take on another project in former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen.
The Finnish driver has a Truck series deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports, but where he'll ultimately land in the Sprint Cup Series has been a hot debate.
MWR has been a rumored destination considering Raikkonen's relationship with MWR competition director Steve Hallam, from their days with F1 giant McLaren. Despite that connection, Waltrip says he won't be adding Raikkonen to his stable -- and it has a lot to do with that project driver who's set to make his Nationwide debut this summer.
"We talked with [Raikkonen], but we just didn't have a place that we felt would work right now because of dedication to Travis and what we have lined up for him," Waltrip said. "We just didn't feel like we were the team for him with what we have going on."
The long-term goal for MWR is expanding to a three-car operation, whenever Pastrana is ready to make the transition to the Cup series.
"Part of the development of Travis is hoping we can learn in Nationwide and he can be that guy, he can be our third team at MWR," Waltrip said.
1: Races this season in which Roush Fenway Racing hasn't had at least one driver finish in the top-10 (Phoenix). Could that change at Talladega, where ...
3: Owner Jack Roush has three wins all time in 160 races, the last of which came in 1997, courtesy of Mark Martin.
18.9: Roush car's average finish on the 2.66-mile superspeedway, their worst of any current track and points leader Carl Edwards averages a 22.1, his lowest of any venue.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. I know I won't be alone here. Junior's showing a level of consistency he's, well, never had with a career-best average finish of 10.9. But there's still the matter of ending that winless drought, which has stretched into triple digits, and there would seem no more logical place for it to happen than 'Dega, where Earnhardt has five overall wins, including a record four straight from 2001-03. If he gets in position to end his skid in Alabama -- and the fact that he's led laps in 20 of the last 22 races there make it a real possibility -- will Junior show the same restraint he showed with Kevin Harvick at Martinsville?
SI Now: Russell Simmons on the benefits of meditation for athletes
Seth Davis' Upset Watch: San Diego State Aztecs