MWR tries to close book on 2013
January 30, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Michael Waltrip Racing team preview
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michael Waltrip Racing, even staring at an early wake-up call for Thursday's SprintMedia Tour, put on its best face to preview the 2014 NASCAR season.
The buzzwords of "excited" and "pumped up" made their usual appearances, but there was difficulty avoiding discussion of the haunting memories of the previous season -- the manipulation of the regular-season finale's race results, the resultant heavy penalties, the loss of longtime sponsor NAPA and a scaling back of its three-car operation -- all of which severely threatened the team's outlook.
For Waltrip, the team's patriarch, there's no looking back.
"We've closed the book," Waltrip said. "Only a fool would trip over something that's behind them. So we're focused on the future and ready to win races."
Michael Waltrip Racing enters a regrouping year, now with a team of two full-time cars and a "research and development" car that will run a part-time slate on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Waltrip and Jeff Burton splitting driving detail.
MWR also announced a partnership with Jay Robinson Racing, allowing the No. 66 Toyota Camry to race in all 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup events. Waltrip will drive the No. 66 in the Daytona 500 and again in the May Talladega race. Burton will race the No. 66 in six to eight races during the season, including his first race on March 9 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Robinson also has named Joe Nemechek as the primary driver for the rest of the 2014 races.
While the decreased amount of races has also equaled a 15 percent reduction in staffing, the engineering budget has increased by the same percentage year over year, according to team co-owner Rob Kauffman.
Part of the closure Waltrip referenced was the reappearance Thursday of Ty Norris, the team's executive vice president of business development and general manager, one week after his reinstatement by NASCAR. Norris was suspended indefinitely last September for his role in altering the race results, telling driver Brian Vickers over the radio to pit in order to benefit former MWR driver Martin Truex Jr.
Norris appeared Thursday to say he would no longer serve as a race-day spotter, but that he was excited with the team's direction.
"I'm really appreciative to have the opportunity to go back to the track and do my job at the level I need to do it for the organization," said Norris, who joined Waltrip's team in 2005. "So yeah, I'm really excited to be back and with certainly a pretty nice perspective on life. ... I'm so focused on '14 right now. It's all about our organization coming out strong. The way we've reorganized with our test team and being so prepared -- 2014 is all I'm really focused on, to be honest with you."
The same could be said of Clint Bowyer, Vickers' teammate who is eager to improve upon his seventh-place finish in last year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup after a runner-up placing in 2012. For Bowyer, Norris remains the backbone of the team, even though he had been banned from the race track for five months.
"Ty's always been there," Bowyer said. "That's what I try to tell Ty all the time, he runs this company. He is the biggest reason that I came over here. He worked hard to sell MWR to me, to my sponsor. He's always been there."
Although the team has undergone its share of turmoil in the last several months, certain key components remain intact. Bowyer is back for his third season, and Vickers returns from part-time duty for his first full-time season with MWR, this time with a solid bill of health after a return of the blood clots in 2013 that nearly curtailed his racing career. The team also locked up or expanded its relationship with existing sponsors while receiving additional commitments from other associate backers.
Waltrip said keeping or expanding that level of support was crucial to his time's livelihood, while admitting that negotiations with sponsors have never been easy. It's just another step to easing the burden on what could be another crossroads season to rise above adversity.
"We've got a great story to tell," Waltrip said. "We've got great drivers and we're going to be around for a long time to come."