MICHAEL WALTRIP, owner, Michael Waltrip Racing
How will you feel not racing a full season in the Sprint Cup Series?
“I’m going to run Daytona -- the Shootout and the 500 -- and that’s the only Cup races I have planned for 2010. I’m comfortable with that. I’ve talked to Billy Ballew about running some Truck races and I’m definitely going to run a couple of those. When I think about going to Daytona, I get excited because I know that I know how to win that race. I finished seventh at Talladega this past October and seventh in the Daytona 500 last year. I know I can go win that race and that makes me smile. When I think about California and Vegas, I just haven’t performed at the level that makes me say, ‘I’m going to go out there and do the same thing.’ I don’t miss that, I’m okay with that and getting to run the truck some is something that I think will be fun for me because I’ve raced against all those guys over there over the years and I’ve always done as good or better than them so I’m kind of looking forward to racing a truck.”
Why did you change to the number 51?
“The 55 was getting a little heavy and I hadn’t won with it, although I felt real comfortable with getting close to winning a couple times. I just wanted a change of pace. I think the 15 was available, but I just didn’t feel like that was right. I wanted a variation of the 15 so I went with the 51, which is sort of part of the 15 family if you look at it like I do. Just wanted something different and felt like that was being respectful to the history that I had at DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), but yet getting to race with that number a little bit myself.”
What makes Michael Waltrip Racing ready to make the Chase?
“First of all, we contended for the Chase in 2009, which was huge for our young organization. That was a first for us. We won in 2009, which was a first for us as well. We’ve retained the same level of support inside of the walls of MWR as we had in 2009 and we added to that. We brought in Martin Truex Jr., a guy that’s raced in the Chase. We brought in Pat Tryson (Truex crew chief), maybe one of the hottest crew chiefs in the garage area as the 2009 season wound down. Just the facts, those are the facts that make me sit here and say that we can indeed race in the Chase in 2010. I couldn’t have sat in front of you in January 2009 and said that because there wasn’t any history to support it. But, we have the history now to say that’s a real possibility.”
Will you be on the pit box for races that you are not driving?
“Yeah, I will. Looking forward to that. There was a couple races this year where I didn’t race and just being able to support my teams and maybe give a little insight here and there to the crew chiefs. Spent most of the Nationwide races on the box with Jerry Baxter (Trevor Bayne crew chief) helping -- I won’t say helping, I helped sometimes and probably hurt other times. Sharing my opinion about strategy and how we could maybe go about running better or adjustments we could make or pit stops we could rearrange. I’ve had fun doing that and my role in the sport, I’ll have something to do on the media side that will benefit for me being at the race track every weekend. As you can imagine by looking around, I’ve made quite an investment in this place (MWR) and I’m not a kid. I know that in order for something to be successful you have to shepherd it and be there with it and just because I’m not racing my car, I’m still going to be owning cars and I’ll have my sleeves rolled up and be all up in the middle of it.”
Do you feel better about the sport of NASCAR in the current economy?
“Anytime things get a little challenging or tough, people get smarter and tougher, they get more determined to be successful. I think the economy has forced us all to look at our business models and see if we couldn’t improve how we go about racing our cars. It made NASCAR take a look at themselves and say, ‘How can we make sure that we’re more engaging to the fan or maybe how we’re more engaging to our teams or partnered together closer?’ I really appreciate what the tough times have done to this sport and also the way that the folks that have guided NASCAR for so long have proactively engaged with us, owners and drivers and the fans, to try to make sure that they all understand that we’re all in this together.”
What was it like to visit and race in Dubai?
“Went up on the 137th floor of the Burg of Dubai and looked around the city. Went to the ski slope in the mall. It made Las Vegas look like Gastonia (N.C.). The huge skyline right there and then you turn around and there’s another huge skyline right there. Sightseeing was awesome, but when we got to the track -- and you can ask Marcos (Ambrose) -- it was the most fun in the whole world. We had run eight hours, I was in the middle of my shift, we were P6 (sixth-place) overall, two or three laps ahead in our class. Rob (Kauffman, MWR team owner) had driven twice and I was doing my second stint. Marcos was two laps away from getting the car from me with a big lead in our class and a realistic shot of winning the whole thing and (we) got in that crash. Marcos was really fun and we were both the same way because he said he had his helmet on and it just made him appreciate being a race car driver. A lot of times the pressure of this gig and the pressure of performing make it tough to smile and enjoy your job, but that was incredible.”
How have you seen Toyota progress?
“In 2007, literally we were just so far off and didn’t know it. Our Toyota engines, they got thrown a couple curve balls late in the going with the engine they had to run -- the power wasn’t there. Fast forward, going into 2010, they are ready to win a championship. They -- Toyota Racing Development (TRD) -- are in their engineering building down in Salisbury (N.C.), and the engines from Costa Mesa (Calif.) have been second to none. The progress that they’ve made as our manufacturer has fortunately, for me at MWR, we’ve paralleled that progress. We’ve been able to add Steve Hallam (MWR Director of Competition) and Nick Hughes (MWR Technical Director) and attract folks like Martin (Truex) Jr. and Pat Tryson (Martin Truex Jr. crew chief). Fortunately, got a cat that’s just like me and David (Reutimann) and most of the rest of the people around here, Rodney Childers (David Reutimann crew chief), who is just a race car driver, he used to race a Late Model. He just wants to go fast. Pat Tryson, he’s a perfect crew chief for this joint. We’ve been able to identify key folks that have been here since the beginning -- Bobby Kennedy (Michael Waltrip crew chief), you can ask Pat (Tryson), Bobby was a big part of Pat’s decision to come here to MWR because he knew Bobby was a race car guy. We made sound decisions on how we were going to race our cars. The engineering support that we funneled to those cars through Nick Hughes has just been incredible. Toyota, TRD, our lifeline, our blood -- they’re ready to win and race for a championship. I think you have to thank Joe Gibbs Racing for showing up and TRD saying, ‘Okay, we see how you all do things and we’re able to improve how we do things.’”
What do you think of NASCAR’s rule changes for 2010?
“I think it’s been very positive. I think the spoiler was a little bit of an easy decision for everybody involved because ever since I’ve been on this earth, I never raced with a wing. My Late Model car out in Kentucky had a spoiler on it and everything I ever raced had a spoiler on it. I think it will bring identity with the car back to the fans. I hope that NASCAR will look at putting Lexan on the rear spoiler instead of aluminum. The spoiler is going to be wider and it’s a chance for us not only to put a spoiler on the back of the car and have the fans identify with it being like we’re used to seeing, but then also we can improve the visibility that the drivers have and make racing more competitive. I’ll tell you this, or you can talk about an aero-push all you want, but when you get down into the corner and you can’t see it, aero-push doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s all about just picking your line and being line sensitive and if we can improve sight and vision then I think it will improve the racing.”
How has social media allowed you to connect with NASCAR fans?
“The comments that I’ve gotten from my Twitter and Facebook is, ‘Wow, it’s cool to see that you’re just one of us.’ I truly am just one of the race fans because when I was born, Darrell (Waltrip) was 16 and from the time I was on this earth till the time I was 15 or 16 years old, I was just that -- a race fan. I would go hang on the fence like everybody else. I’m happy that it gives me a conduit to the fans so they can sort of understand how I look at the sport and how I look at competing with my race car and what that means to me and how much I appreciate that opportunity. I believe that if I’m able to continue to connect to the fans like I have through my Twitter and Facebook, then it will help us to use this sport to grow the fan base and particularly the fan base of MWR because they will feel like they have a connection to it. I think the connection to me and to the team is something that they couldn’t have if it wasn’t for those two social media outlets.”
MARTIN TRUEX JR., No. 56 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
Are you as optimistic today as when you signed with MWR last year?
“I’m even more optimistic right now, I can tell you that. Getting involved in what they do here and seeing what’s going on and the support from Toyota and what Steve Hallam (MWR director of competition) and all the guys here on the technical side are doing -- I have been really, really impressed with it. The cars they are turning out. We have done some testing and the cars are running really well. Pat (Tryson, crew chief) has been able to give me what I need behind the wheel to go fast. I’m way more optimistic than I was then. I’ll tell you, all my expectations have been blown away. I think we’re headed for great things this season.”
Was it a gamble signing with Michael Waltrip Racing?
“Not a chance. Honestly, I feel like this is my best opportunity since I have been in the Cup Series to make a statement, -- go out there and be competitive each week and be a front-runner. I feel like this is my best opportunity. We had a great year in 2007, and I think this year is going to be better than that.”
How important is a strong start to the season?
“It’s always important to start well. You don’t want to start in a hole. It takes too long to dig out of. I’ve been in that situation before, starting seasons in a hole. It’s difficult. If you can come out of the box strong, have something to work with, have something to build on so you can get better throughout the season and not worrying about making up points or any of that crazy stuff, it seems to go a little bit smoother. Then, you can get into working on things to get better each week instead of just worrying about being there every week. I think we’ll start strong. They’ve got some great stuff here. Their cars were super fast at the end of the year last year. I feel like they’ve improved on that. I’m excited to get out there and give it a go.”
Have you gotten to know your teammates?
“We’ve hung out together a few times. The flight down to Daytona with him (David Reutimann) and Trevor Bayne was pretty interesting. David’s a good guy. I talked to him quite a bit at the end of last year knowing this was coming. Marcos (Ambrose), also. I think they’ll be a lot of fun to work with. It should be a good deal.”
How is your relationship with crew chief Pat Tryson?
“I’d say he’s a piece of work. I didn’t realize it, but he’s a lot of fun to be around. We’ve done a little bit of testing so far. He likes to have fun. I like his approach. He’s laid back. The guys have a lot of respect for him and I do too, and that goes a long way.”
Are you looking forward to drafting with Michael Waltrip at Daytona?
“Michael (Waltrip) is really good at Daytona and Talladega -- they are obviously two of his strong suits. It’s going to be fun to get out there with him. It will be fun to see him race his last race in the NAPA car and all that goes with that. We’re just excited to get down there as a group. I’m excited to work with David (Reutimann), Marcos (Ambrose), Michael (Waltrip) and everybody, and getting things going. Getting into the swing of things and hopefully get the results.”
What are your thoughts on the proposed rule changes?
“I think the rule changes are all great. I think the yellow line rule is one that I’m a little nervous about. I think they need to keep that. I think they will in the end. I think a lot of drivers will agree. But, the deal with the spoiler looks very promising. I think it’s important for the fans. I think they’ll be more excited to look at the cars. The cars look a little racier, a little more sleek. Every car I have ever seen since I was born had a spoiler on it. That will be good. As far as pulling the reins back from the drivers, not sure how many 1979 Daytona 500 fights will start this year, but it should be exciting. Let us have more fun. Let us go out there and enjoy ourselves a little bit more and it will definitely be a better show for the fans.”
Have you set personal goals for 2010?
“No, and I don’t plan on it. I don’t really like setting goals because it sets you up for disappointment. You say you want to win five races, and you win four, and you don’t feel like you did your job. I’m going to go out there and do everything I can to put the NAPA Toyota in victory lane every week and whatever else happens will happen, but I think it will be a great year for us.”
Have you seen the difference of driving a Toyota?
“On the race track so far, it’s been hard to tell. We only tested once, and I felt like the motor was very strong that TRD (Toyota Racing Development) built. I didn’t have any complaints about it. They were asking me to complain so they could make it better, but I said it felt pretty good. Obviously, the aerodynamics, the bodies are very similar in all the cars. I think the biggest thing that they have brought to MWR is from the technology standpoint. Working together so closely and developing chassis engineering and engines, all the stuff that goes along the technical side of going fast with these race cars. What they bring to that has just been really incredible for me see. It is something I have never really seen before. They are very much a part of what goes on here day to day in making cars go faster and that is something I have never seen.”
Can you talk about the excitement here at Michael Waltrip Racing?
“It’s definitely different for me. The last couple of years, I have had to deal with a lot of (negative questions). And all this positive thinking and positive energy and everything that’s happening around here with MWR -- just keep getting better as a team -- to be part of that has been really fun for me. It’s been a little more work than I’m used to this off-season, but I’ll say that I’m having a blast so far and I think it’s going to be a great year.”
Did you talk to Dale Earnhardt Jr. before signing with Michael Waltrip Racing?
“He (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) actually offered a little bit of advice. You know when others in the sport are going through negotiations, everybody hears about what’s going on. Him (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and Michael (Waltrip) are obviously great friends. Michael and his father (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) were great friends. He just gave me a little bit of personal insight on Michael and things about him that I probably didn’t know that was definitely helpful.”
How was Michael Waltrip as a teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc.?
“He was a good teammate. When we were teammates at DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), I was in the (Nationwide) Series and he was racing Cup, so we really didn’t interact a whole lot. Usually, when they were getting ready for their race, we were done and flying home. I have spent more time with him just in the past few months driving here at MWR than I ever did at DEI. He has been a lot of fun to be around. He’s very excited. He’s got all the guys pumped up. It’s good.”
What sold you on Michael Waltrip Racing?
“At the end of the day, it felt like the best place for me. I felt like it was a place where I could go and be myself, and have the support to do what I need to do. I knew some of the guys, and when I was walking through the shop I was checking things out. I was just impressed with how the morale was around here and the excitement. You can feel the buzz around here. It’s been like that since the first day and it was like that yesterday and today. It just feels good. Everybody is looking forward, moving forward and working hard and excited about the opportunities. That was a big selling point for me.”
How impressed are you with your brother’s (Ryan Truex) success?
“I have been really impressed with him (Ryan Truex) behind the wheel, there’s no doubt about it. I think he’s only been racing about three-and-a-half years now and he’s 17, and he’s won a championship. Behind the wheel, he’s way past 17. It just seems like he’s done it forever. He just gets right in there and gets the job done. I have been really impressed with him and his maturity behind the wheel. Trying to get him to run some Nationwide stuff this year. Not sure if I will or not, but we’re trying to put some stuff together for that. I can’t wait to get to race with him -- it will be fun. At 17, I was running go- karts. Things are definitely a lot different for him.”