JOLIET, Ill. – Last weekend it was a win for Clint Bowyer. On Friday, it was the announcement of a new sponsor.
This Sunday, the Chase for the Sprint Cup will begin — for the first time with a driver from Michael Waltrip Racing.
Two, in fact.
"It seems like ever since I made this change over to Michael Waltrip, it's almost daily that there's more good news around the corner," Bowyer said.
Five years after an atrocious showing for Toyota in the manufacturer's first year in NASCAR's top series, MWR is wrapping up an impressive season. Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are both in the Chase, which starts with Sunday's race at Chicagoland. That's quite a step for a team that had four top-five finishes all of last year.
"We just have a great core group of folks that embrace the team atmosphere, just love working at MWR," Waltrip said after Bowyer's victory last weekend at Richmond. "That's probably the thing I'm most thankful for, is the fact that everybody gets along, everybody wants each other to do good."
MWR launched in 2007, but Waltrip became embroiled in a cheating scandal at the season-opening Daytona 500 and quickly ran out of money. Rob Kauffman, an investment fund manager and racing enthusiast, bought into the organization and pumped in cash, and Joe Gibbs Racing defected from Chevrolet to Toyota at the end of that year. When ties to Chevrolet were officially over, J.D. Gibbs personally visited with every Toyota team to offer support, including technical advice.
MWR's commitment at the Cup level really increased last season. The organization expanded to three cars by hiring Bowyer for 2012, and he's come through with two victories and six top-five showings. Truex also has six top-fives this year.
"Michael really put everything he had into it, made the full commitment right out of the box," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was teammates with Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when Waltrip won his two Daytona 500s. "They did struggle. Now he's able to enjoy all the efforts and the sacrifices he made. It's been a challenge, I know. When I see him up there with his two drivers, Truex and Clint, I know he's as proud as he can be."
On Friday, Waltrip and Bowyer announced a deal with PEAK Motor Oil to be the primary sponsor on Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota for three races in each of the next three Cup seasons. PEAK also will be an associate sponsor for all three MWR cars.
That only added to the loose atmosphere surrounding the team.
"That's the mentality that MWR has, and obviously, running well helps that along," said Bowyer, also the winner in June on the road course at Sonoma. "Going back to last week. We had our Chase luncheon ... and it just so happened to be celebrating a win as well. All the positive vibes and the positive things that are going on at MW right now. It's just a really good wave, and we're all riding and enjoying the ride."
Bowyer's attitude seems to personify the team, and even though he's new, it reflects the strides MWR has made.
"There was this one time he said I was the worst driver in NASCAR. That showed a lot of personality," Waltrip joked. "It's genuine. That's most important. You walk in the shop, he's the same guy if they flick on the TV cameras, and that type of enthusiasm is something that our team needed."
Bowyer has finished in the top 10 five times in six starts at Chicagoland, and now he'll have a chance to start the Chase off on the right note with a strong finish this weekend.
"I hope I haven't changed any. I'm running better than I ever have, and when you run better, you're seen more," Bowyer said. "I've always kind of enjoyed being under the radar, enjoying this sport and having fun with my guys and my team, the organization around you and your sponsors. I've never worked with an organization that does a better job of networking with their sponsors."