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NSCS: Michael Waltrip Racing 2014 Preview

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Grant Halverson/Getty Images for Michael Waltrip Racing

 

By Joseph Wolkin-NASCAR Columnist and Editor (@JosephNASCAR)

December 26, 2013

WHITESTONE, N.Y.– Michael Waltrip Racing has restructured their organization more than they had originally planned. The team which once nearly closed due to being in a severe financial catastrophe, is now one of the few NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams that has been able to win one race every year since 2009 (with the exception of 2011).

Even though the organization is still attempting to build into a prime competitor in NASCAR’s top tier division, they have made strides which no one could have predicted when Michael Waltrip started a multi-car organization in 2007. Now, the team has to make another comeback after suffering from a severe penalty after the “spingate” controversy at Richmond.

The team attempted to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and he was going to make it into the Chase if Ryan Newman would not have been stretching out his lead. However, his teammate, Clint Bowyer, allegedly spun out of purpose in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. while exiting turn four during the final stages of the race. This spin basically changed the entire back half of the top-12 in points. Then, their other teammate, Brian Vickers, was told to pit, giving Truex an extra position on the track. The rest, well that’s history.

However, the team has moved on well from all of the drama. Truex was able to win a race for the first time since 2006, but due to the controversy, he was left without a sponsor. After a lot of decision making, Truex and MWR parted ways at the end of the 2013 season. Truex has left MWR for Furniture Row Racing, leaving a vacant seat at one of the top Toyota teams in NASCAR.

Jeff Burton and Waltrip will be filling in the third MWR car for the 2014 season. Though it will not be a full-time car, the No. 66 (was No. 56) Toyota Camry will be a research and development team to help the other two full-time cars within the team.

It may seem like the team is taking a step back, yet this move can only make them stronger. Waltrip will be running the Daytona 500 and likely the rest of the restrictor plate races, his strong suit. Burton will be making his debut with the team at Las Vegas in March. This will help Burton ease into “retirement” before he enters the television booth in 2015 as an analyst for NBC.

Burton will bring plenty of experience to the organization, filling in a role that Mark Martin has held since the 2012 season until the time he left MWR to fill-in for Tony Stewart after he broke his leg in a Sprint Car accident. Now, Burton can be a team leader, helping Vickers and Bowyer become consistent drivers like Burton once was.

This R&D team might become a full-time car in 2015 if sponsorship is found for another driver. MWR does not have any development drivers as of now, they might be able to bring on a young driver such as Alex Bowman, or even bring back David Reutimann, as long as sponsorship is found.

Bowyer is expected to contend for wins more frequently than he did in 2013. Though Bowyer had an extremely consistent year, racking up 10 top-10 finishes plus 19 top-five’s, he was not able to win a race. He was able to contend for wins at Richmond, Martinsville and a few other races in 2013. However, his competitiveness was not there in 2013 such as his extraordinary 2012 season.

Working with Brian Pattie again, Bowyer should be a strong candidate for the title in 2014. He did not have as much bad luck as presumed after finishing runner-up in points in 2013, but going win-less for only the third time in eight full-time seasons, Bowyer has a lot to prove in 2014.

Entering a contract year, if Bowyer wants to return to MWR, he will have to prove his value, especially to his sponsor, Five-Hour Energy, which almost left the organization such as NAPA did. Bowyer certainly can run for a championship. Now is the perfect time for him to have a breakthrough season. If Five-Hour Energy does not return in 2015, Bowyer may test free agency, even though he has found a good fit at MWR.

Vickers signed a two-year deal with MWR that will end at the conclusion of the 2015 season. He will take over the No. 55 Toyota on a full-time basis after running part-time since 2011. In 2013, Vickers had an emotional victory at New Hampshire while winning the race on fuel mileage. It was his first win since 2009 at Michigan with the Red Bull Racing team that ceased operations at the end of the 2011 NASCAR season.

Once Martin left the team, Vickers was tabbed to finish out the year in the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine. He ran well until he was diagnosed with another blood clot, sidelining him until Daytona in February. Though it was not as severe as his last blood clot, Vickers and his doctors did not want to take any risks, especially with how severe blood clots could be. Vickers will have to monitor these blood clots for the remainder his life. Unfortunately, if they come back, it may be the one thing that stops him from contending for a championship in NASCAR’s top division.

Vickers was able to earn valuable track time in the car he will be driving in 2014 until he was sidelined. He should run for wins on a weekly basis in 2014, especially at short tracks which have become his strong suit over the past few seasons. Running for the Nationwide Series championship with Joe Gibbs Racing also helped him before he was forced out of the car.

Expect Vickers to run well as long as his blood clots do not return. Unfortunately, blood clots return every so often. If he has a bad accident in 2014, the clots can reform depending on the area which he gets hit. However, with a driver that is as consistent as Vickers is, he should stay out of trouble for the majority of the 2014 season. He will be working with Billy Scott as his crew chief during the 2014 season.

 

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