Two drivers in the Chase. Second place in points. Three cars in the top 15 in owner points.
That was the 2012 scoreboard. Can Michael Waltrip Racing make the next leap forward?
That’s the next question in line for Waltrip, a guy who’s been around stock car racing virtually since he learned to talk and walk, a guy who struggled mightily in the first years of team ownership but suddenly found himself in the middle of a mass of success last season.
With a final-race surge, Clint Bowyer finished second in the point standings to Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. took 11th in points, and the team’s third car, mainly driven by Mark Martin, finished 15th in owner points.
It was the year Waltrip had planned for and dreamed about since he jumped into Sprint Cup with Toyota in 2007.
“We all had a lot of hope and anticipation for the 2012 season,” Waltrip said Tuesday. “We, honestly, as a group knew we had the best cars, the best crew lineup and the best drivers we had had. We went into 2012 pretty confident we could do more than ever before, but we weren’t quite bold enough to think we could win more races and have more top fives than we had ever had.
“Coming off the season we had and knowing we have the same players in place – I think that says a whole lot about achieving our goals in 2013. Obviously, after last year, we have to reset our goals. We want to race for the championship and race for it with at least two of our three cars.”
Bowyer and Truex will be back in MWR Toyotas, and Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers will share the team’s third car.
“Last year was a great year for us,” Truex said. “We came so close to winning a bunch of races. It had been a long time since I’d been part of the Chase. To have our whole team back together means we should move forward.”
Bowyer said the team exceeded expectations last year, “but, the way I look at things, that’s last year. We have a new opportunity and a new challenge ahead of us with this new car. Everybody’s playing catchup and focusing on getting to the punch with this new car first.
“We continued to improve as a group through the whole season last year. I think we still have room to improve across the board at MWR. I feel like we can do that again this year with this new challenge ahead of us with the new car. I’m proud of what we accomplished, but I’m looking forward to this year and getting back to racing.”
So how does MWR take the next step?
“We just have to win more races than last year,” Waltrip said. “It just gives us the desire to do more. There’s no pressure. Pressure was loading up the NAPA car in 2007 and not making a race. We worked really hard to be able to enjoy the success we had in 2012. It makes us want more.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.