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Jan 30, 2014 - 06:31 PM
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Leaner Michael Waltrip Racing Poised To Rebound
Posted by: ASkyler on Jan 30, 2014 - 06:31 PM
Feature Articles
Leaner Michael Waltrip Racing Poised To Rebound

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's a Phoenix Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, owned by Harry Scott.

But there's also an organization that more aptly embodies the nature of the mythological phoenix, which is reborn when it rises from the ashes.

In its debut season in 2007, in the wake of a fuel-system cheating scandal at Daytona, Michael Waltrip Racing came perilously close to becoming a soot-covered carcass, before financier Rob Kaufmann stepped in with a much-needed infusion of cash.

Six years later, in the September event at Richmond that determined which drivers make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and which don't, MWR again incurred the biggest financial penalty in NASCAR history ($300,000) for trying to manipulate the outcome of the race.


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The negative fallout cost MWR a $16-million-a-year sponsor (NAPA), one of its marquee drivers (Martin Truex Jr., who departed for Furniture Row Racing) and a Chase spot for Truex, who was knocked out of the 10-race playoff because of a points penalty.

MWR reduced its roster of full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup cars from three to two. The organization sold its airplanes and will fly to 2014 races via charter.

Kaufmann explained the economics of that last decision.

"We're not running an airline," Kaufmann said Thursday on the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We're running a race team. With the aircraft, the cost -- with two full-time teams rather than three -- you just went below the break-even of where it made sense.

"So we were able to get out of the aircraft business, which is good. It's not a core function. My accountant and my insurance people are very happy about that."

That's not to say there's not good news for a streamlined MWR. Aaron's has committed to a full season on Brian Vickers' No. 55 Toyota, after remaining with the organization in the wake of last year's debacle at Richmond.

In fact, the loyalty of Aaron's and Toyota may have been the critical factor in keeping MWR afloat.

"It was huge, beyond comprehension," said Vickers, who was sidelined last year for the second time in his career due to blood clots, but has received medical clearance to race. "Everything that I went through, everything the team went through last year, having a company like Aaron's stand behind you through thick and thin just means a lot and makes you want to go out and work that much harder.

"It makes you appreciate what they do, and I think that resonates with the customers. I think it resonates with the fans."

Clint Bowyer, who qualified for the Chase last year and finished seventh in the final standings, is back in the No. 15 Camry. Owner Waltrip and Jeff Burton will share a limited schedule in the No. 66 Toyota, which will function as an R&D team.

In fact, as MWR opened the final day of the media tour, Burton was in Nashville for the second day of testing in nine-degree weather at 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway.

"We expect to make the Chase and we fully expect to race for a championship," Waltrip said. "That's what our focus is."


Sam Hornish Jr., who will share driving duties with Kyle Busch in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota this season, had one major decision to make after switching teams this season -- whether to grow a beard or not.

Hornish comes to JGR from clean-shaven, buttoned-down Team Penske. In contrast, roughly half the JGR owners and drivers sported facial hair at Thursday morning's media session.

"To be associated with JGR, I'm glad that I got this opportunity," Hornish said. "I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to go out there and to work alongside Kyle and work with [crew chief] Adam Stevens to get in JGR equipment and see the things I can do to make myself better and hopefully do the things that I can to be an added value to the team outside of what I do inside the race car.

"I'm happy. I'm pretty pumped up about what's going on and looking forward to it. I was running down this morning trying to figure out whether I should shave or not. It's about 50-50 here on how much facial hair we've got -- which is not something that I'm used to when I get up here for all this stuff.

"Maybe I'll grow a beard before I get to Talladega."

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