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Michael Waltrip Racing looks for a leader

Michael Waltrip Racing has made tremendous strides since its inauspicious multi-car debut at Daytona in 2007.

With new teams, a new manufacturer and a new model car, the three full-time teams qualified for just 68 of 108 races that first year.

In three years, MWR has revamped its roster, deepened its engineering resources and strengthened its technical alliances through other race teams -- particularly JTG/Daugherty Racing, which operates under the same roof in Cornelius, N.C.

Unlike 2007, when the MWR transporters unload for Speedweeks next month, the teams will no longer be an afterthought. The MWR racers will pose a threat to win.

Veteran David Reutimann earned the organization's first win last May in Charlotte. Under the JTG/DR banner, Marcos Ambrose showed dramatic improvement at every track he returned to, including the road courses, Bristol and Daytona, where he finished sixth in July. And team newcomer Martin Truex Jr., who was pegged to replace Michael Waltrip as the third full-time driver, is ready for a fresh start in his fifth season on the Sprint Cup tour.

But which of the three drivers will emerge as the alpha driver from the shop? Who will lead MWR in the next evolution of its development? Here are the options.

David Reutimann -- Reutimann, 39, is a third-generation racer who starts his fourth full season on the Cup tour. After his first year with crew chief Rodney Childers, Reutimann was a Chase contender early in 2009, won two poles, his first race and rose as high as fifth in the point standings after the third race of the season. Reutimann completed the third most laps on the circuit in 2009 (99.2 percent) and has the longest non-DNF streak of any cup driver.

If Reutimann has a weakness, it's his timidity on the race track. He's lost on-track battles with both Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. As a former mechanic, it's understandable that Reutimann is conditioned to taking care of his equipment. But 2010 is a contract year for Reutimann so it's unlikely that the competition will push the No. 00 Aaron's machine around with the same ease.

Where does Reutimann see himself in the team's pecking order? When it comes to leadership, he'll leave that to Waltrip. As far as the drivers are concerned, Reutimann knows performance will determine the driver's position.

"You're only as good as your last race," Reutimann said. "So one week you may be 'The Franchise,' the next week you may be just a guy that finished 35th. That's just how it works for you."

Reutimann makes his 100th career Cup start in the Daytona 500. He finished 12th in the 500 last year. And Childers' return to the team marks the first time that Reutimann will continue with his crew chief from the previous year.

Marcos Ambrose -- Given Ambrose's background, no one was surprised when he was a dominant force on road courses. But he proved during his first full season on the Cup tour that he was certainly not a one-track pony with sixth-place finishes at both Pocono races, and top 10s at Bristol and two of the restrictor plate tracks. He continues to amaze his crew with his concentration and tremendous car control.

"Our team is growing and our results this year have helped prove that," Ambrose said. "I'm a lot more confident as a driver and secure in myself that I can do the job. All those things will play a part. You can't guarantee you are going to move forward. It's a challenging world we live in. We are very focused on understanding that not every step is going to be forward and sometimes you may take a step backwards."

Ambrose and his team's expectations for 2009 were far from lofty: finish in the top 30 in the point standings. He ended the year 18th -- two positions behind Reutimann -- and continued to establish a solid platform for the future.

As soon as the season ended, Ambrose returned to his home in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia where he continued to race, work out and relax down under. Crew chief Frank Kerr says Ambrose dropped 15 pounds in the offseason and intends to come out fighting.

After analyzing his season, Ambrose admits to giving away 300 points prior to the Chase. If he can overcome the team's weaknesses -- the two-miler sister tracks of Michigan and Auto Club Speedway along with Atlanta Motor Speedway -- Ambrose believes he can be a contender for the title.

Martin Truex Jr. -- After two miserable seasons wrought with consternation surrounding the No. 1 Chevrolet, Truex is thrilled to have a fresh start with an organization on the rise.

Truex thought moving to a new team was going to be a challenge until he spent time with the crew at a Goodyear tire test at Atlanta last week. Although he experienced amazing horsepower with the Earnhardt Childress engines, Truex said the Toyota motors blew him away.

He also beamed as he spoke of working with his new crew chief Pat Tryson. When the driver requested a change in the car's setup, Tryson knew just what to adjust. Truex says the experience was better than he could have imagined.

"I really enjoy working with Pat," Truex said. "I've known him for a few years. We've been friendly, but I didn't really know much about how he worked and how he went about his business. I've been really impressed with him and the way he takes care of the guys on the team, the way he interacts with them, the way he works in the shop and the way he kind of does his thing.

"It's going to be an easier transition than I thought. Everybody at MWR has welcomed me with open arms. They've been very good to work with, very straightforward, very fair, and a lot of fun. So it's really going well so far."

Truex has just one win in 153 starts and only qualified for the Chase in 2007. Last season as a lame duck at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, he closed out the season 23rd in the point standings. But with Truex's enthusiasm and Tryson's experience, the No. 56 Toyota should be fast off the truck at Speedweeks, where the driver won the pole for last year's Daytona 500 and finished 11th.