By Vito Pugliese – To say that 2013 was a tumultuous year for Michael Waltrip Racing would be a bit of an understatement; tantamount to saying the Hindenburg experienced a bit of a backfire.
The team that was one of the brightest success stories of 2012 was suddenly walking the tightrope over the abyss as 2013 drew to a close. By the time the checkered flag fell as Homestead the team suffered the following:
– Martin Truex, Jr. forcibly removed from The Chase
– Clint Bowyer treated for itchy arm syndrome (IAS)
– Flagship sponsor NAPA promptly departed
– Brian Vickers hospitalized with a recurring blood clot issue
– Mark Martin departing mid-season for Stewart-Haas Racing
– Martin Truex, Jr. leaving to take over the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet
– Rodney Childers leaving as crew chief of the No. 55 to join SHR
– Chad Johnston leaving as crew chief of the No. 56 to join SHR
Had it not been for that 2012 season, 2013 very well could have seen MWR dry up and blow away like so much chafe in the wind. Survivor that he is, Michael Waltrip carried on, and has added a new stabilizing force within the team in Jeff Burton, who will make his first start of the season this weekend in Las Vegas, driving the No. 66 Let’s Go Places Toyota Camry. It will be the first start of the season for Burton who was replaced by Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing after nearly ten seasons of service.
This year hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts for the company, with Vickers and Waltrip wrecking in the Daytona 500 while Bowyer had an engine go south. This past weekend at Phoenix the No. 55 of Vickers slapped the wall after having a tire go down, while the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer was largely a non-factor leading just one lap and coming home 13th. Albeit third best among Toyotas and just one spot behind corporate compadre Matt Kenseth.
For Burton, it is an opportunity to race a limited schedule before he goes full-time TV guy next year with NBC Sports. This year, he essentially is filling the role vacated by his long-time friend Mark Martin, as the veteran presence on the team. Granted it is in a limited capacity, but having spent the last 18 seasons with two of the largest organizations in the sport with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, Burton is not a job hopper and knows what is required to make a team function. It also serves as a reunion of sorts with Scott Miller, competition director at MWR who was Burton’s crew chief during his most productive seasons at RCR.
So should we expect to see “The Mayor” on the pole this weekend? Probably not; give the guy a chance to knock the rust off first. However, with the knockout qualifying in its infancy, a year that has been slow to get going, it’s things in preparation and procedure that Burton can help identify and improve, as well as provide fresh feedback and perspective on car performance. It is a boon as well for NBC Sports, to have a driver still active in the series providing commentary this year on its “NASCAR America” show, and next season in the booth when he clambers out of the car to call the second half of the season. Most former driver commentators today haven’t been in competition for over five years; others a decade or more.
For Burton it’s a chance to remain involved in the sport and slowly back away, rather than going all-out with a farewell tour of sorts. After all, that’s not really his style, plus he has said he’s feared getting out too quickly after having talked to other former drivers, as he told MRN’s Dustin Long.
As he did with the other two super teams he has competed for, Burton will leave MWR in better shape than it was when he arrived. The same will be said for the broadcast booth when he straps into that seat full-time in 2015.
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