Michael Waltrip Racing moves forward with new full-time driver, added security
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The crucial race weekend that led to Brian Vickers’ return to full-time competition in the Sprint Cup Series may not have been New Hampshire, where the driver scored the third victory of his career. It just might have been two weeks earlier at Kentucky Speedway, when Aaron’s officials told Michael Waltrip Racing that they didn’t want part of the No. 55 car for next season.
They wanted all of it.
“They told us, ‘The thing we don’t like is co-branding. We want to focus on all 36 races.’ They told us that at Kentucky,” said Ty Norris, MWR’s vice president and general manager. “We were like -- OK, that’s not what we were expecting, but it’s fantastic to have that conversation.”
That conversation led to an announcement Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where Vickers was officially named MWR’s full-time driver in the organization’s No. 55 car beginning next year. Fueling the move is backing from longtime MWR sponsor Aaron’s, which will be on the car for every points race the next two years -- a rarity in an era where the vast majority of entries on NASCAR’s top series are funded by a variety of different sponsors that split the season.
Although Aaron’s has funded the bulk of this season, in which Vickers has split driving duties in the No. 55 with Waltrip and Mark Martin -- the latter of whom has competed in most of the races -- next year driver and sponsor will be the same every week.
“I’ve been a longtime NASCAR fan, and this has been kind of a natural for me in a way,” said Ron Allen, who became Aaron’s president and chief executive officer in late 2011. “… I met Brian back at our national manager’s meeting. I knew a lot about his background, and I just think he a real competitor, which is important. He wants to win races, and he has the character and integrity we look for in the people who represent Aaron's.”
For Vickers, 29, Tuesday’s announcement was the end of a long climb back to the top of NASCAR’s premier series. The Thomasville, N.C., native was sidelined for much of the 2010 campaign by blood clots that ultimately required heart surgery, and after the following season the Red Bull team for which he had been driving pulled out of the sport. He’s competed part-time for MWR the past two years, with three races remaining in a 12-event slate this season.
“It’s huge,” he said. “This for me is a very special moment. Something I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen again.”
Vickers has competed full-time this season on the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, which like MWR fields Toyotas. He is currently fifth in that circuit’s standings, 18 points behind leader Austin Dillon. Although he didn’t rule out the possibility of more Nationwide events next year, Vickers said his priority would the No. 55 car, and another full Nationwide slate in 2014 would be unlikely.
As far as a Sprint Cup ride, Vickers said he had other options, but he felt at home at MWR and liked the rapport he’d built with crew chief Rodney Childers, who Vickers has known since both were racing go-karts.
“There were some options. Over the last two years, actually,” Vickers said. “But it’s so difficult to find a team and crew chief and a crew and an owner and a sponsor you just feel like you fit with, and it’s not something you wan to give up lightly. I’m not going to say that it was never an option or never a topic of discussion, but it was pretty far down the list, to be honest with you.”
Waltrip said the team was close to re-signing Childers as well. “Brian and Rodney have a great relationship,” said the two-time Daytona 500 winner. “They’ve known each other since they were kids. They love working together. There’s a lot of harmony and confidence in one another. We plan on the whole team being back together in 2014 and beyond.”
Beginning next season, the No. 55 car will join the small number of remaining vehicles -- which includes another Waltrip entry, the NAPA-backed No. 56 of Martin Truex Jr. -- with one sponsor covering the entire season. Multiple sponsors have almost become a necessity, Norris said, given the costs today of fielding a championship car. As far as the No. 55 is concerned, Toyota helps make up the difference.
“The ability to get to that level is largely and almost exclusively because of Toyota. Our arrangement with Toyota allows us to be able to do this at a very competitive rate,” Norris said. “That’s what we started working on. But (Aaron’s) came to us about all 36 races versus any other arrangement, and that to me was one of the great moments.”
MWR certainly tried to sway the negotiations in that direction. Norris brought up 2010, when former MWR driver David Reutimann won at Chicagoland, and the first text he received from an Aaron’s executive lamented the fact that Tums was the brand on the hood of the car. Then there’s Waltrip, who does whatever he can to further relationships -- as he will next week, when instead of being in Bristol he’ll be racing a K&N Pro Series West car in Spokane, Wash., in conjunction with a NAPA event.
“I don’t twist anybody’s arms. I go quite the opposite,” Waltrip said. “I hug them a lot, and ask them what can I do to make this partnership work for them. … It’s not like a race where you can run over somebody. You just have to present your case, and hopefully people appreciate who you are.”
The most immediate beneficiary is Vickers, who next year will be back on the Sprint Cup tour full-time for the first time since 2011.
“I feel like I’ve finally found a home,” Vickers said.
Tuesday’s announcement came a month after his victory at New Hampshire, a surprise win in a part-time ride.
Asked by a television reporter immediately afterward if Vickers had clinched the ride, Childers offered a prediction: “I think this might seal the deal,” the crew chief said.
Allen remembers watching that on TV and laughing. By then, a full-season deal was already in the works.
“We still had some details to work out, but with our getting to know Brian and Michael’s knowing Brian, we thought it was a very good choice,” Allen said. “That wasn’t necessary for him to win that race, but it didn’t hurt.”