Cup preview: Michael Waltrip Racing
One in a series of 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team previews ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500:
MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING
Principal owners: Michael Waltrip, Rob Kauffman
Engine source: Toyota Racing Development
Alliances: Jay Robinson Racing
2013's top finisher: Bowyer, seventh
2013 grade: B
2014 preseason grade: B-minus
2014 outlook: From a public relations standpoint, 2013 couldn't have gone much worse for Michael Waltrip Racing. The infamous team orders scandal at the fall Richmond race, where Clint Bowyer was allegedly told to spin out and cause a caution to safeguard Martin Truex Jr.'s place in the Chase, very publicly backfired and resulted in the departure of Truex and major sponsor NAPA Auto Parts. MWR regroups for 2014, cutting back from three to two full-time entries, though a late arrangement was made to run the No. 66 car in all races in a partnership with Jay Robinson Racing. Bowyer is back, along with a healthy Brian Vickers, who has been cleared to drive after his latest blood clot scare. Waltrip himself will run the Daytona 500 and the May Talladega race in the No. 66 car, with new recruit Jeff Burton taking the helm for 6-8 additional races and Joe Nemechek handling the rest. Ty Norris, who took the fall for "Spin-gate" and was subsequently suspended by NASCAR for four months, was reinstated, but in his new position of executive vice president of business, will no longer act as a race-day spotter.
Quotable: "We didn't do as well in 2013 as we had hoped, and we're laser focused on 2014. Rob Kauffman and I meet with our competition guys regularly, and back in November, Rob's vision was: 'Don't leave anything in the bank. Let's invest all we can invest in testing, in preparation, getting ready for the '14 season. All in.' If you think we need to save something for August, we'll worry about that in August. Let's focus on now. We've been practicing, testing and preparing for the upcoming season as hard as we can. We've been on the track most every week since December and gaining a lot of information, putting a lot of stuff in the computer and trying to understand exactly what kind of setup we want to show up at Phoenix with. In my opinion, the no-ride height rule is the biggest rule change that has ever happened in the sport, since I've been around. It's going to change the way the driver feels the cars, and it's changing the way we're setting them up, for sure. If I was a smart guy, I would have bought a spring company last November because we've bought more springs over the last couple months than we have in the history of MWR." -- Michael Waltrip
Quotable: "We had an especially busy offseason after we reorganized from three full-time cars down to two. We have about 220 people in the company now, which is down about 15 percent. But for perspective, our engineering budget, year on year, is up 15 percent. That's a reflection on the emphasis we're putting on the actual product of racing. We've turned the 66 car into a full-time testing team, and having Jeff Burton involved has been terrific. We're very proud that we were able to attract somebody of that caliber into our organization. My priority, and I think it's shared by everybody in the shop, is to focus on performance. The environment around the shop is great. Everybody is energized and focused and there's a good buzz around the place. We want to win races and compete for the championship. It's not more complicated than that, but of course, doing it is pretty hard." -- Rob Kauffman
Clint Bowyer (No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota): "It always feels good to hit the reset button. After last year, I was ready to be home and sit on the couch for a couple days, but it's time. We've put a lot of hard work into this season, a lot of pressure I guess on ourselves and myself. But our work is done, we're ready to go. Maybe that's because we backed up to two teams, I don't know. It's the first time in my whole career that I've ever walked into the shop at this time of year and everybody is working just on finessing things, massaging things to get ready for the season and not just wholesale thrashing to literally just get the car to the race track. That excites me and that tells me that we're ready as a race team. I've got a great team. We have fast race cars, I have a great crew chief and great engineers and smart people behind me. As far as the 15 team goes, we're exactly the way we've been since 2012. The key to success in this sport is people and when you can keep all those people together, that's how you maintain the level of success that we're capable of accomplishing. We're as prepared as we've ever been."
2014 goal: Restore his reputation after "Spin-gate."
Brian Vickers (No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota): "I met with my doctors [in late January] and everything looked fantastic from their perspective. I'm off blood thinners and they said, 'You can go racing.' The clots presented a big problem, but also a little bit of an opportunity to take some time off, which was nice. I've missed being in a race car for the past three months, for sure. At least it wasn't as bad as last time, when it was six months. It's fantastic having Jeff Burton involved with what he can bring to this team. Having him on board, especially for me this past offseason, just being able to have two drivers in cars testing when I wasn't able to be in a car, has been huge. We couldn't ask for a better guy to be in that role, in my opinion. We want to go out and try to win multiple races, we want to try to sit on poles and we want to try to win a championship, and I think the 55 Aaron's Dream Machine team can do that."
2014 goal: Complete the full season without any health issues.
2014 SPRINT CUP TEAM PREVIEWS
A team-by-team look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series contenders (previews of the remaining teams will be unveiled almost daily leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23):