Miller Has Waltrip Racing Enjoying The High Life
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It’s the day before the eighth Sprint Cup race of the season and the temperature is knuckle-reddening cold, the wind is shredding flags and banners, and the Kansas Speedway track surface is coming up in five-inch chunks.
If Scott Miller, the vice president of competition for Michael Waltrip Racing is concerned, he’s not showing it. What he is doing is lounging in a chair behind Matrin Truex Jr.’s hauler comparing motorcycle riding-related knee injuries with a crew member from another team.
Calm, cool and analytical are in vogue in the MWR competition department these days and the results are showing that Miller’s approach to making Toyota Camrys fast is making his team one of the big success stories of the 2012 season.
MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. finished second in Sunday’s STP 400 at Kansas Speedway and afterward said something that would have sounded absurd during the pre-Miller days; he said he was disappointed with the runner-up finish and that leading 173 laps and not finishing was crazy-frustrating.
Then he caught hmself: “I guess if we can be this disappointed with second it shows how far we’ve come as a race team,” Truex, who moved to second in the Cup point standings at Kansas and will head to Talladega just 15 behind leader Greg Biffle of always-powerful Roush Fenway Racing.
That’s huge for a team with the history of Michael Waltrip Racing; a team which has been known more for missteps and disappointments than racing success.
The team made its first big media splash in a very unwanted way when, in 2007, it was slammed by NASCAR after an illegal substance was found on the inside of his car’s intake manifold during the season-opening Daytona 500 Speedweeks.
The incident, which reached near-scandalous proportions and tainted not just MWR but also Toyota in its Sprint Cup debut, remains what team founder Michael Waltrip has called his darkest hour.
Lee White, the president of Toyota Racing Development, still winces at the mention of Daytona 2007. But he also said during a break in action at Kansas Sunday, that his company did not stop believing in MWR after the incident occurred. “It wasn’t Michael,” White said. “It was a couple of his guys.”
In the years since, it has been MWR’s inability to transform solid sponsorships into on-track success that has been the big story. There had been just two victories over 396 starts by over a dozen drivers for MWR when the 2012 season began.
Still, there was something in the team’s race shops which intrigued Miller when he was approached by Waltrip, co-owner Rob Kauffman and veteran front-office guy Ty Norris. And there was something intriguing about the offer he was tendered – so irresistibly intriguing that Miller left the competitive comfort of Richard Childress racing, where he was competition director, to throw in with MWR late last season.
“The bottom line was that Rob and Michael made me an offer that was very interesting,” Miller said as he sat at the Truex hauler. “I had to do a lot of soul searching because I had a lot invested, certainly, at RCR and they had been extremely good to me.
“But at this stage in my career, I kind of welcomed another challenge, if you will. Rob and Michael kind
of like gave me the keys to the place and really wanted somebody to steer the ship completely. It kind of got me exctied, not that I wasn’t before, but it kind of got me excited about the sport and the task at hand. So, I accepted the offer and here we are.”
When Miller – who had been wooed by other teams and who did spend time away from RCR when he worked for Cal Wells’ team several years back – used his new keys to open the shop door, he found things to be in remarkably good shape. He found that this was not going to be a ground-up rebuild job.
“I was very, very fortunate that when I walked in, I found that many, many of the systems that have to be right for a race team were either right already or on the verge of being right,” Miller said.
Included were the engineering department, the simulation program, the aero department and all of the technical aspects of the team.
“And those are the most time consuming things to build if they are not in good shape,” Miller said. “That was one of the things that worried me the most.”
Also not a huge worry was funding. Since wealthy businessman Kauffman was brought into the organization a couple years ago, money has been less of an issue at MWR.
Essential money, Miller said.
“I’m not going to just sit there and ask, ask, ask, ask, ask, ask to spend more money, more money, more money, but when I have identified something that is key to our success,” Miller said, “Rob and Michael have been happy to invest where I think we need to invest. It’s been very cool.”
He also found things that were not so cool.
“A little bit, the organizational things and the way things were being gone about in engineering,” Miller said. “And then, just basically simple things like making sure the way cars were being prepared mechanically to the level they need to be to contend to put cars in the Chase and be at this end of the garage area.”
The “this end of the garage area” is the end where top-points team set up. The area where Miller spent the Kansas weekend.
Truex, who came to MWR in 2010, arrived at Kansas fourth in points. He had five top-five finishes, which represented over one third of all his career top-fives.
Clint Bowyer, who followed Miller over to MWR after spending six full seasons at RCR, was 10th in points. Mark Martin, who came over from Hendrick Motorsports and who will drive only a partial schedule at MWR this year, was 20th in points even though he had raced in just five of seven events. The car which Martin shares with Brian Vickers, is 12th in owner points.
MWR was doing so well early in the season that Bowyer’s primary sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, announced
at Kansas that it was increasing its presence. The company, which had originally agreed to sponsor only 25 of the 36 races in 2012, decided it wanted all 36. Because of a prior commitment, it could only get 35, but Bowyer headed out of his home state of Kansas with total funding in place.
“We have measured real growth through our retail partnerships, in-market activation, sales growth and brand awareness,” Scott Henderson, president of 5-Hour Energy, said in announcing the new deal. “The numbers show we’ve exceeded all expectations.”
Truex, and his sponsor (NAPA auto parts), are in the final year of their deals with MWR. Waltrip wants both back. If the team can maintain its competitive performance for the rest of the season, chances are both could return.
And Truex, who one member of the team said has the attitude and confidence of a reborn zealot, certainly sounds as though he will to return.
“You know, as disappointed as I am with this second place, this is a big day for us as a team,” Truex, who has yet to win a race for MWR, said. “It’s kind of a statement for us that we’re here for the long haul, we’re here for the rest of the season. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’ve been solid each week, and I know our wins are going to come, we just need to keep running like we are.
“Again, I can’t thank Michael and Rob and everybody at NAPA enough for allowing us to put this program together and to stand behind us for a few years to get it going. Good things are in the future for us, and I’ve just got to keep looking at that direction.”
And Truex was quite vocal in giving credit to Miller for the way things have turned in the right direction.
“He came on at a time when we were changing the way we build our cars and did our program,” Truex
said. “That was a really good thing for us. He came in and streamlined the process, made sure it was consistent, made sure we were getting everything out of the people on the floor building the race cars and things. Scott has been a lot of fun to work with.
“He was my crew chief when Chad was suspended for a few races last year and really got to know him well. He got a really, really good inside look at our cars and what we were battling with and what we needed to do better with, and as bad as it was to have Chad get suspended and all that stuff, it was a really good opportunity for Scott to really take a good look at the whole program and be a part of the program and say, OK, these are the things that I need to do this winter.”
Miller has been asked repeatedly how close MWR is to winning a race. How close it is to getting a driver or two or three into the Chase. Everybody wants to know when, when and when.
Miller said he is absolutely certain all that will happen. The “when” part is tricky, however.
That’s because Miller has been around racing a long time. He knows that fast cars and drivers do not always result in wins and championships. He said things can happen in racing. Like the thing that happened at Kansas on Sunday when Bowyer suffered an engine failure while running in the top 15.
“How we handle the inevitable bad stretch that all race teams are going to have, is going to be really key,” Miller said. “How we finish out this year, really. Keeping a positive attitude, knowing we’re going to rebound, knowing you can’t panic if you have a couple of bad weeks. That’s something that this organization hasn’t been through yet. How we handle that, and I put a lot of responsibility on how we handle that on myself, is going to be really key in us sustaining and continuing to be a force to be reckoned with over the course of the season.”
But right now, it looks like MWR and Miller have the looks and attitudes of winners.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment