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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Michael Waltrip is a smart enough businessman not to let a few angry words in the heat of the moment keep him from doing what's best for his race team.
Like politics, racing makes strange bedfellows.
Waltrip has hired Clint Bowyer, the man who once called Waltrip, "The worst driver in NASCAR."
It happened at Bristol three years ago, when Bowyer blamed Waltrip for an on-track incident. The exact quote goes like this: "Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR, period."
But Bowyer didn't stop there. He also had a message for Waltrip's sponsor: "I can't believe NAPA signed back on."
Wow. A double whammy of insults.
And what did those unkind statements mean in the grand scheme of things when Bowyer was a free agent looking for a new team?
Nothing. Nada. Not zip.
That was then and this is now. Waltrip had a chance to make a major upgrade to his program at Michael Waltrip Racing by hiring a new lead driver who can help the organization take the next step and become a true contender.
|Clint Bowyer is more than happy to eat his words about Michael Waltrip now.|
"I started this organization because I wanted to have a winning race car and be a championship team owner," Waltrip said Friday. "Now with Clint here, I have a chance to do it."
Waltrip wasn't about to let a moment of frustration from Bowyer three years ago keep him from an opportunity to add a man who has made the Chase three times.
Of course, the comment did come up in the official news conference at Kansas Speedway before the new No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota was unveiled.
"Now Clint, when you said I was the worst driver, did you mean of all-time or just this era?" Waltrip asked.
Bowyer just laughed.
"You never know when you are going to have to eat your words," Bowyer said. "But Michael promised me he would be the best owner ever."
A wise team owner knows a good thing when he sees it. You take the guy who can help you and forget past rhetoric and hard feelings. Waltrip saw Dale Earnhardt (his boss in 2001) do that 13 years ago with Mikey's big brother.
When Steve Park was injured in a 1998 crash, Earnhardt needed a quality driver to fill in at Dale Earnhardt Inc. Who did he pick? He called Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt's longtime rival. The two guys had more than a few harsh words between them over the years.
Things change, but in this case, what's in it for Bowyer? On paper, it looks to be a move down the Cup food chain.
Bowyer is leaving Richard Childress Racing, an organization that has placed drivers in the Chase five of the last six seasons, for MWR, a team that never has placed a driver in the Chase.
So why do it if you're Bowyer?
"This team is all about the future and the future is bright," Bowyer said. "I see this as a wonderful opportunity to prove myself to everybody. When you start out at RCR, a place that has so many championships, you're just another guy there. If we put these guys [MWR] in the Chase, we build our brand even better."
Bowyer, 32 and in his sixth Cup season, is clearly is the No. 1 guy now, although he downplayed that idea Friday. But he revealed a surprising twist about his decision. The 5-Hour Energy people came to him, and they were willing for him to stay at RCR.
"We talked to Richard about it, but still couldn't put a deal together," Bowyer said. "At that point I said, 'OK, we'll go somewhere else.' That's what ultimately led to leaving RCR. It's a shame. I owe a lot to Richard."
Bowyer said he was surprised and disappointed when Childress told him no, but Bowyer has no hard feelings.
"I was in an auto shop in Kansas when he called me the first time," Bowyer said. "He changed my life, and I'll always be grateful. But it was time to move on."
Childress opened the books to Bowyer, showing him the numbers didn't add up. Childress didn't feel the money from 5-Hour Energy was enough to continue to run a fourth car. And Childress wasn't going to pay the kind of money Bowyer was wanting (way north of $5 million a year) without full funding on the car.
So Bowyer had to look elsewhere, and his options were limited. Plenty of teams would love to have him, but it's all about sponsorship dollars these days. It worked for MWR, a team that was willing to pay more and take less to improve.
"Only a few times in a young company's history can it see days that change it," MWR vice president Ty Norris said. "We believe today is one of those moments."
Time will tell, but it isn't like Bowyer has gone to some Cup wasteland. MWR isn't a contender yet, but it can be with Bowyer's help.
He's a top-10-caliber racer, something MWR hasn't had since its first Cup season with Dale Jarrett. But the team wasn't ready to race in 2007, struggling just to qualify. Things started with Waltrip's infamous penalty at Daytona and got worse from there.
MWR has the people in place now to take advantage of Bowyer coming onboard. It won't be easy.
MWR was expecting better this season from Martin Truex Jr. (20th in the standings) and David Reutimann (28th). However, a couple of changes for next season could make a big difference.
Toyota Racing Development is combining its engine program with Joe Gibbs Racing. MWR gets its engines from TRD, but the new plan for shared information and technology with JGR should benefit Waltrip's team.
And Scott Miller now is part of MWR to help it get better. Miller left his position as director of competition at RCR last month to take a similar role at MWR, another positive in Bowyer's eyes.
"Scott is a great leader," Bowyer said. "And I see [MWR] as a young progressive team. In a down market, it has Toyota and now 5 Hour Energy behind them. Both are spending and pushing forward. This is an opportunity [for MWR] to catch up."
Depending on how you look at it, MWR isn't adding a team at its shop. JTG Daugherty Racing, the No. 47 Toyota driven by Bobby Labonte, shared the same building with the two MWR cars. It basically was a third MWR car with separate ownership.
The 47 car is moving to its own shop but is expected to stay with Toyota and continue as a satellite operation of MWR. So MWR still will have three cars at its shop but keep an association with the 47 team.
And MWR also has Travis Pastrana on the horizon in Nationwide when he recovers from his recent injuries in an X Games motorcycle crash. Whether Pastrana ever pans out in NASCAR is questionable at best, but he does bring sponsorship money and a huge following among the younger demographic.
It's a benefit to Waltrip's team, but nothing close to the leap forward Bowyer will bring. Waltrip said TRD president Lee White had a message for him during the negotiation process with Bowyer.
"You need to get this done," White told Waltrip. "This will change your company."
White is right. Who cares if Bowyer shot off his mouth once a long time ago and ripped his new boss? Waltrip's no fool. Passing on the chance to sign Bowyer would have been foolish.
Better days are ahead for MWR, thanks to Bowyer signing up. And some place next year, Bowyer will stand in Victory Lane, arm in arm with Waltrip.
At that moment, Waltrip just might turn to Bowyer and say. "Clint, you are the best driver in NASCAR, period."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.