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Waltrip's Toyota team can't get on track, literally

Michael Waltrip's first year as an owner has been a total loss.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 5, 2007


Just east of where the Mississippi River catches its breath after rolling through Memphis, a still-sleepy crossroads of Mississippi routes 1 and 8 mark the spot where, according to legend, bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his lot on earth.

About four pit stops east, Michael Waltrip sat in a director's chair outside his hauler last week at Talladega Superspeedway. In this rustic corner of nowhere, he had claimed one of his four career Nextel Cup wins in 2003, and announced in 2005 that he intended to start a Nextel Cup team. That team quickly bloomed to a well-sponsored, three-car program. But now the 44-year-old looked like a man whose Faustian bargain was being called due, and his weekend was about to get worse. Consider:

- Waltrip had just ended his "employment relationship" with crew chief David Hyder, who had been suspended indefinitely before the Daytona 500 when an illegal fuel additive was found in the No. 55 Toyota Waltrip drives. Waltrip hasn't driven it much, having failed to qualify for all nine races since the opener.

- David Reutimann, a Zephyrhills native, had what could have been the best finish of his rookie season implode Sunday as he ran third with 10 laps left. Toyota engines have a reputation for durability. Not this time. He has missed three races and not finished better than 32nd.

"There were times we've been running so bad out there we've wished the motor would just blow, " Reutimann said.

- Dale Jarrett, a two-time champion who at 50 was supposed to add a veteran foundation to the first-year team, used his sixth and final past champion's provisional to make the race at Talladega. He finished 40th, dropping his average finish this season to 32.4.

Waltrip said Jarrett and crew chief Matt Borland, who won 12 races in seven years with Ryan Newman before leaving Penske Racing, weren't communicating well enough.

By Thursday, Borland was no longer with the team - Jason Burdett was named as his replacement.

Reutimann, the only Michael Waltrip Racing driver to keep his crew chief since the season began, is keeping his head tucked as he races under a one-year Cup deal.

"You just try to keep your team in a bubble, " he said, "focus on your team and what you have to do."

So what's Waltrip to do as he juggles a harder-than-expected role as driver/owner/face of the team?

"Show up, take responsibility. Stand up in front of people, " he said. "I'm not only the owner but the spokesperson of this company."

On Friday, Waltrip failed to qualify at Richmond International Raceway, meaning tonight's Cup race will be the ninth in a row he will sit out.

Still, he has received a vote of confidence from Toyota. His impressive sponsor lineup (won with the country boy charm that made him a star of commercials and NASCAR talk shows) has collectively remained silent. But they're not getting value for their checks, said Eric Wright, vice president of research and development for Joyce Julius & Associates, which studies the value sponsors get for their dollars. Wright said NAPA could lose from $5-million to $10-million in television exposure for each race Waltrip misses. But, he said, it could be worse.

"If this was Joe Schmo, unpopular driver that no one knew or care much about, they wouldn't get that benefit back because no one would be writing stories about him missing the show, " Wright said. "I think he's cashing in a little equity he's built up over the years, but that's probably very short-term."

Wright said NASCAR fans might not care, anyway. Negative publicity is still publicity, within reason, he said, as long as it occurs on the track.

"I don't know if the consumer is sitting there weighing the positives and the negatives, I just think they're sort of receiving the message, " he said. "Over time it really just blends together and it's still better just to get that name out there, short of something major, like a crime or something like that."

Oh yeah. Waltrip was charged with reckless driving and failure to notify authorities after hitting a telephone pole about 2 a.m., April 7 outside of Charlotte, N.C.

Waltrip said he has had to find comfort in the people who don't see him as a driver, or a pitchman or a team owner.

"When I go back to the motor home, I'm only one person, and if it weren't for my wife and my daughters and people here that appreciate who you are. ... , " he said. "I've never been a failure, and I won't accept this failing."