Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 1/29/12

FONTANA, CA - OCTOBER 09: Michael Waltrip, driver of the #55 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, stands on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway on October 9, 2009 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

 

Michael Waltrip Racing and the affiliated JTG Daugherty Racing are featured in the fourth installment of Sports-at-Work’s NASCAR team preview articles in anticipation of the 2012 season.

MWR underwent a major shakeup following the 2011 season. Longtime driver David Reutimann bid adieu, as the team unceremoniously dumped its only race-winning driver on the free agent market. Sure, Martin Truex Jr. has a lone Cup win, but that came before his time with MWR. Ditto for newcomer Clint Bowyer’s five wins, Mark Martin’s 40 wins and team owner Michael Waltrip’s four wins.

Meanwhile, 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte enters his second season with JTG Daugherty Racing looking for his first win since the end of the 2003 season.

 

Michael Waltrip Racing

Clint Bowyer - #15

Sam: Joining forces with full-timer Martin Truex Jr. and part-timer Mark Martin is Bowyer, coming off an uneasy departure from Richard Childress Racing. While lauded over the years as a top contender on the Cup tour, the final figures underscore the issue that Bowyer is usually fighting desperately for a Chase berth. In more cases than not, he has managed a win and a Chase seed.

Now, at MWR, he is the leader and face of the team, and Bowyer is expected to bring the organization its first-ever Chase berth. That's a good deal of pressure, and this season is a year that will define Bowyer's ability to take the reins and lead MWR to a clutch 2012 performance.

Luke: For whatever reason—be it sponsorship, lack of results on the track, or becoming tired of the never-ending parade of crew chiefs at RCR—Clint Bowyer jumped ship for the greener pastures at Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer had a solid career with RCR, but failed to improve upon a third-place finish during his 2007 sophomore season.

Bowyer takes on a leadership role at MWR, which is doing its best to beef up its driver lineup and overall results as it strives to break through to the upper echelon of NASCAR’s super-teams. Perhaps new sponsor Five-Hour Energy will provide the fuel for Bowyer to step up to the plate and deliver the goods in 2012.

Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip - #55

Sam: After a brilliant career resurgence in a five-win 2009 at Hendrick Motorsports, Martin mysteriously dropped off the face of NASCAR earth the following two seasons. Neither wins nor Chase berths were to be had. That aside, MWR is looking at Martin, still truly a racing great, to be the cagey veteran guru to the relatively young blood of Martin Truex Jr. and newcomer Bowyer.

Running a limited schedule, with owner Michael Waltrip taking the wheel for a handful of events himself, MWR looks to make the #55 machine a race contender when on the track. Obviously, a Chase seed isn't what this endeavor is about. However, the sights are set on a win or two, which would certainly help Martin make up for his lackluster performances in 2010 and 2011.

Luke: It will be interesting to see how Mark Martin performs as he attempts a partial schedule with MWR. The last time he did so—with Ginn Racing in 2007—he nearly won the Daytona 500 and was leading the standings early in the season before stepping out of the car. My prediction is that he will win a race, probably early in the season. Obviously he’s not a candidate for Chase contention, but I expect Martin to run his best since his near-championship season in 2009.

Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will be filling in for a few starts. The younger brother of 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Waltrip, the MWR owner/driver is always a threat to win on the restrictor-plate tracks. In fact, Waltrip won the February trucks race at Daytona last season. He hasn’t pulled off a Cup win since 2003, but he’s far from the longest shot in those races.

Martin Truex Jr. - #56

Sam: Many racing journalists are tabbing Truex Jr.'s upcoming season as a make-or-break year, and that's not without reason. After not quite cutting the mustard with only a single win at Richard Childress, the former Nationwide champ got a mild boot down to MWR several years back.

To be sure, MWR runs competent equipment, capable of running with A-level speed against the Hendricks and Roushes of the world. However, Truex's 2007 win at Dover remains his only checkered flag, and 2007 his only Chase berth. The future for Truex is uncertain if 2012 doesn't contain a win, or two, and a Chase seed. It's truly time for Truex to make his mark felt at MWR.

Luke: At times, Martin Truex Jr. has appeared to be the unluckiest driver in NASCAR in recent years. Run-ins with drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya haven’t helped his cause much, either.

But be that as it may, the 2004 and 2005 Busch Series champ needs to turn things around in 2012. Truex Jr. is in serious danger of being outshined by both Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin if he doesn’t win a couple of races and make a serious Chase run, pronto. The 31-year-old has plenty of talent, to be sure, but potential will only take you so far in this sport if it goes unfulfilled for too many years (Joey Logano, take note).

 

JTG Daugherty Racing

Bobby Labonte - #47

Sam: After a top-30 points finish in 2011, including a near-win in the Daytona 500, Labonte looks to take several strides up the points ladder this season, and a win for good measure is a definite possibility. It’s obvious that Labonte still has terrific skill at the wheel; however, at this late stage in his career, success isn’t what it used to be for the former champion. In great part, this is due to running in equipment that doesn't measure to the lofty brilliance of Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, or Childress.

Thankfully, Labonte's not in too much of a pressure seat. Still, garnering more top-10 and top-15 runs is a must this year, and contending for the win at a few races would do wonders for the organization.

Luke: Bobby Labonte is in an interesting situation: a former series champ running in middling equipment while approaching the twilight of his career. To be sure, the equipment at JTG Daugherty Racing is far superior to what Labonte was running at Hall of Fame Racing and TRG Motorsports a few seasons ago. To longtime fans, it was depressing seeing a former luminary of the sport struggling along in such sub-par rides. However, Labonte ought to be able to do better in his current gig.

The 47-year-old hopes that his second season with JTG will lead to better results, with the goal of finishing near the top 20 in points and improving on his lone top-5 run and two top-10’s from a year ago. And if he smells the opportunity for a win, expect Labonte to pull out all the stops in order to capitalize on what could be one of his last chances to visit Victory Lane.

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