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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Michael Waltrip

Michael Waltrip Age: 43
#55 NAPA Toyota Crew Chief: David Hyder
Nextel Cup Stats
Top 5's
Top 10's
Top 15's
Avg Start
Avg Finish
Driver Rating

For the first time since 1986 Michael Waltrip did not score a top ten finish. 1986 was also the last time
Waltrip did not start a Cup race. In fact, he missed three plus a fourth race where he purchased his entry. On the track 2006 was a disaster for Waltrip.

How bad was it? He had one finish (14th at Talladega) inside the top fifteen. He had a mere 5 lead lap finishes compared to 7 DNF's. It's never a good sign when you have more DNF's than lead lap finishes. Beyond his the DNF's he had 15 "bottom 10's". To ensure he made the first five races, he purchased owners points from Doug Bawel and the defunct #77 Penske team. This luxury was quickly squandered by poor finishes. By the ninth race, Waltrip was outside the top 35 for good. Things only swirled further down the drain from there. Waltrip did not qualify
for the Coca Cola 600, but purchased Derrick Cope’s ride to satisfy his sponsor, Napa
. It’s unclear whether Napa
was satisfied with Waltrip’s 41st place finish at Charlotte
. Waltrip also missed the second largest race, the Brickyard 400 plus Richmond and Homestead.

After several great runs in 2005 while showing some serious skill, 2006 seemed like a wasted year on track. After an 18th at the Daytona 500, the year took an immediate dive. Blown engines, faulty brakes and crashes explained some of the problems. Sometimes Waltrip made problems for himself. At the spring Bristol race, he misunderstood his spotter and plowed into two crashed cars, half a lap after the original wreck. Mechanical failures or plain bad luck is one thing; every driver endures both. Adding poor judgment to the problems really compounds matters. The one relatively bright spot was his Busch Series efforts. A second place at the fall Charlotte race highlighted 3 top tens in 21 starts.

Sure his on-track record was dreadful, but his off track activities were very successful. Toyota appointed him to be the flagship team for their 2007 entry to Cup. He secured enough sponsorship for three cars and hired Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann to drive. He also hired a lot of organizational talent: Ty Norris, Matt Borland, Larry Carter and David Hyder among others. Don’t let his goofy, sponsor-pitching personality fool you; he has a definite plan for his company. Sponsors obviously love him and that is a big part of any organization. When he announced he was leaving DEI for Bill Davis Racing, it was a puzzling move. Of course that was before he was granted the task of starting a new organization from scratch. While it essentially cost him his 2006 season, his long range plans remain on course.

Waltrip probably won’t see great improvement in 2007. Plate tracks will again be his strength. Even in an under-supported Charger, Waltrip had his strongest races at Daytona and Talladega
. His experience in the draft is a huge asset, especially when the strength of his cars is unknown. Making the Daytona 500 shouldn’t be a problem and would get his team off to a solid start.

It might be surprising that based on average finish, Waltrip’s best track is Sonoma
(avg finish 15.9, 7 top tens in 15 races). Aside from plate tracks, he has also been historically solid at Charlotte and Bristol. Waltrip has 675 career starts, fourth most among drivers with a 2007 ride. Waltrip must rely on his vast experience to regain his pre-2006 form.

Qualifying isn’t a great strength, although he did capture the pole at Pocono in 2005. It was his first pole since George H Bush was in office. His best effort last year was 19th and his average start was 31.9.

While Waltrip is capable of putting together strong runs at any track, he has never finished in the top ten in points. Even in his best years at DEI, Waltrip struggled with weekly consistency. He can’t afford to start the year erratically. David Hyder will be the crew chief in 2007. He worked with Ken Schrader for the last two years as crew chief first at BAM racing and last year at Wood Brothers. Creating immediate chemistry between the two will be vital for the season.

Overall, the Toyota cars will struggle initially. Many people have predicted dominance from Toyota, but that will not be in 2007. The biggest challenge will be the intermediate tracks. These tracks are the most aerodynamically intense and require the most R&D help. Perhaps the one program where MWR and Toyota are on an even playing is the Car of Tomorrow. Other established teams already have an inventory of 2006 cars and the associated technology, but everyone is starting at the ground floor with the new CoT.

Returning to the top 35 is definitely attainable. He is capable of collecting a few top tens, although improving on his 2 top 15 finishes is a more immediate goal. Like the other Toyota
teams, simply making races to lay the groundwork for future seasons is priority one. After having his feet in two camps last year, Waltrip can finally focus all of his efforts in one place in 2007. That doesn’t mean he will be less busy, but probably more focused in one place.

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