With a stellar start to the 2012 season, Martin Truex Jr. is on his way to becoming the first driver from Michael Waltrip Racing to make the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
MWR has been competing in NASCAR's premier series full-time since the start of the 2007 season, but none of its drivers has qualified for the Chase. That might change this year, with Truex and Clint Bowyer possibly making the field. Both drivers are full-time competitors this year, while Mark Martin is running a partial schedule.
This past Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Truex had one of his best performances in Sprint Cup. He led 173 of 267 laps but ended up finishing second to Denny Hamlin, who won in the series for the 19th time. Hamlin passed Truex for the lead with 31 laps remaining and then beat him to the finish line by 0.7 seconds.
Truex was hoping to score his second career Cup victory. His first win came on June 4, 2007 at Dover International Speedway, which the Mayetta, N.J., native considers as his home track. Truex drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the time.
Since finishing 17th last month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Truex has rolled off five straight top-10 runs. Truex is now up to second in the standings, trailing leader Greg Biffle by 15 points.
"I felt like (Sunday) was kind of a day where I thought I was back and felt really strong that we'd have a car that could contend for the win going into the race, and then to be able to do that all day long, it was a good feeling," Truex said. "As disappointed as I am with this second place, this is a big day for us as a team. It's kind of a statement for us that we're here for the long haul. We're here for the rest of the season.
"We're not just a flash in the pan. We've been solid each week, and I know our wins are going to come. We just need to keep running like we are."
Despite suffering engine failure and finishing 36th at Kansas, Bowyer sits 11th in the rankings. He's 22 points behind 10th-place Ryan Newman.
Five years ago, MWR struggled to qualify for a Cup race. Now, the organization is giving the top teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing a run for their money.
One big reason for the turnaround at MWR has been the personnel changes within the past year, ranging from drivers to crew chiefs.
Last October, Bowyer signed with Waltrip for this season after driving for Richard Childress Racing in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series since 2004. Brian Pattie came on board as crew chief for Bowyer's No. 15 team after most recently serving in the role for Juan Pablo Montoya's team at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Just weeks after Bowyer's signing, MWR revealed that Martin was coming on board, sharing driving duties with team co-owner Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers, who was added to the lineup earlier this year. Vickers drove the car at Bristol and Martinsville. He also will be behind the wheel in four more races. Waltrip's first event will be next week at Talladega.
David Reutimann ended up being the odd man at MWR, even though he is the only driver who has given the organization a Sprint Cup race win to date. He won in May 2009 at Charlotte and in July 2010 at Chicagoland.
At the halfway point of the 2011 season, Waltrip made a crew chief change with Truex's No. 56 team, with Chad Johnston replacing Rodney Childers.
Johnston has been very instrumental in the team's success this season.
"He's just done a really, really nice job," Truex said. "He's been my engineer since probably a third of the way into the season last year, and I just can't say enough about what he's done with the race team. He's a great leader."
Truex also has been appreciative of the feedback he's received from Martin.
"Martin Truex Jr. has been phenomenal," Martin said. "The teamwork I'm feeling right now at MWR is second to none where I've ever been at. Martin Truex Jr. is really, really engaged, and he's working hard to help the whole program. We're racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys."
Truex has qualified for the Chase only once, doing so in 2007. He finished 11th in points that year. Based on his performance this season, his chances of making another appearance in the playoffs are looking pretty good.