For MWR's No. 55, No Move is the Best Move
To have the kind of patience necessary to withstand scrutiny from media, fans and, in auto racing, sponsors, in a results-driven business is a rare trait. When the lows of a relationship occur in front of a large audience, the steadiest of partnerships can be tested.
Sometimes a rough patch in a relationship needs time in order to be smoothed. In the sporting world this hypothesis has been proven by some of the more respected duos like Belichick and Brady, Popovich and Duncan and, in NASCAR, Johnson and Knaus, whose relationship was thought by team owner Rick Hendrick to be salvageable, evident by the folkloristic story of the “milk and cookies meeting.” In these instances, making no changes was the best decision.
While the No. 55 team at Michael Waltrip Racing pales in comparison to the juggernaut relationships mentioned above, the act of keeping together the driving platoon of Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip for another year — the announcement made by MWR late last week — is a chess move reminiscent of one made by a grandmaster.
When Vickers was signed — he was the third driver added to the roster, the second choice after Richard Childress and Chevrolet intervened with Elliott Sadler’s potential hiring — the knock on the driver lineup was that Martin was too old, Waltrip was too terrible and Vickers was available for a reason. Independent of one another, each driver would be those things, but as a group, the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
Martin, at age 53, is not an ideal driver for a full 36-race slate. But electing to watch the races at Talladega, Martinsville and the road courses — tracks he detests — from his living room sofa provide a rejuvenating peace. He’s been more than serviceable this season; through 21 races he has produced at a fringe contender level, amassing a Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 2.333. For a frame of reference, he earned a 1.083 PEER in 2011 while being the sole driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5. The ratings uptick from ’11 to ’12, over one whole point, is an upgrade from Martin being an occasional anecdote during a race to a consummate plot line.
As the founding owner and face of MWR, Waltrip has the right to choose whether to race. His driving career won’t be celebrated in the Hall of Fame of Uptown Charlotte, but even nine years removed from his most recent Daytona 500 win, he remains a serviceable restrictor plate racer. He led 21 laps at Talladega in May and finished ninth in July’s Coke Zero 400. To be frank, if this is the extent of Waltrip’s participation in the driver’s seat, it isn’t all that horrible.
The pressure to do something different with the No. 55 entry came from the eight-race sample size that Vickers offered this year. In reality, Martin signed a two-year deal prior to last season, so MWR was contractually obligated to include him in any proposed combination of drivers; however, Vickers might end the 2012 season as the most productive driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His 4.000 PEER is currently the best among drivers with at least six starts.
In August I wrote the following on Vickers:
“The short, selective schedule benefits Vickers more than many believe. He has not been known as a road course stalwart, but weeks, turned months, of practice and preparation for European Sports Car racing with MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman undoubtedly improved his road racing acumen. Likewise, his short track showings this season have come in a year in which MWR’s short track program has been stellar; each car finished inside the top five in the spring Bristol race, Clint Bowyer nearly won at Martinsville and all three cars led [at Bristol in August]. Not to take anything away from his production — he absolutely earned the two top-five finishes he collected on two separate Bristol surfaces this season — but the idea of having a car on cruise control (a metaphor, not an allegation) compared to the majority can clear the mind of a driver sawing at the wheel in an otherwise cluttered race. This year, Vickers has hopped in the car at opportune times and has capitalized accordingly. He cannot be blamed for that.”
Vickers in a 36-race season would not be able to produce at the level at which he did on this year’s short schedule, so says his history. He has been either a replacement-level producer or merely serviceable in the nine seasons prior to this one. But in a year in which he was part of a three-man lineup for a surprisingly elite race team, he worked wonders. According to sources, he is expected to parlay this season’s success into a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series deal with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor Dollar General in 2013. As for something more permanent with MWR’s Cup program, there appears to be no room at the inn. To MWR’s credit, that is the right call.
Faced with the prospect of making Vickers the lone driver — an avoidable mistake made by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. with an overwhelmed Regan Smith, who won Rookie of the Year despite a -0.306 PEER in 2008 — MWR decided to keep its productive platoon in place. Though Vickers might still have the hankering for a season’s point-collecting bid, Waltrip, Kauffman and general manager Ty Norris made the smartest, safest decision for the team: they elected to not mess up a good thing. They also retained one more key piece of the No. 55 team.
The unsung hero of this race team is crew chief Rodney Childers, the man who has game-planned for three different drivers over the course of 33 races. If a head coach in football had to devise optimum strategy for multiple quarterbacks on his roster, it would be considered a daunting (and subsequently dumb) task. Well, that is exactly what Childers has had to deal with in 2012. Instead of competing for a championship like its MWR brethren (the No. 15 team with Bowyer and the No. 56 team with Martin Truex), the No. 55 is on an independent mission.
Combined as one driver (Michael Martvickers?), the molded triumvirate has earned a 2.197 PEER, a 15.1 average finish (that would be good for 14th best in the series) and a 75.76 Relevance percentage (read: percentage of finishes inside the top half of a field), three metrics that would point to a Chase-contending team. But that was never part of the original plan. It makes someone like Childers, with the apparent chops of a Chase-contending crew chief, a special kind of leader. For that reason, his recent contract extension was hard earned and totally justifiable.
It isn’t likely that one day you will be bouncing your grandchildren on your knees, reminiscing about the time you saw the mighty No. 55 team buck conventional NASCAR wisdom by trotting out a three-man driver lineup. But in the modern age of racing — an age where if a team doesn’t make the Chase then personnel changes are afoot — it is refreshing to see a race team not intervene with a positive combination.
MWR looked past commonplace superficiality and recognized a good thing. The decision to leave the No. 55 untouched was a stroke of artistic genius.
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