One small step for MWR, one giant leap for Brett Moffitt
Over the past three years, NASCAR's youth movement has had a number of talented young drivers enter the Sprint Cup series. A number of others are now at the Xfinity series level preparing for their chance to replace one of NASCAR's tenured veterans. The Folds for Veterans Quikticket 500 at Atlanta added another name to that list in Brett Moffitt. His eighth place finish was another good sign for a team that was once thought to be on verge of collapse.
Prior to Sunday's race in Atlanta, most NASCAR fans would have been challenged to identify Moffitt as a driver, much less pick him out of a lineup. He's had a single start at the Camping World Truck and Xfinity series levels. His 2014 saw him running select races for the Michael Waltrip Racing-affliated #66 Identity Ventures Racing team. Coming into this season he had a grand total of ten starts combined in NASCAR's top three series.
Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer was coming off of a second straight season to forget. His last win was in 2012. He scored a dismal 19th place in season points, easily his worst finish as a full time Cup driver. He led only 109 laps (49 of those at Martinsville), his worst total since 2009. It's impossible to say for certain, but the echoes of Richmond in 2013 still seem to loom loud over the team in general and Bowyer in particular.
The choice of Moffitt to replace Brian Vickers (out due to offseason surgery) wasn't totally unexpected. As the team's official test driver and resident developmental talent, he was familiar with both the equipment and the people. As Vickers plans on returning next week, there was no reason to bring in someone from outside the organization. It's also worth noting that as a cash-conscious team MWR likely saved plenty by giving Moffitt an opportunity instead of hiring from the outside.
Sunday's race was like a blast from the past for the team. Bowyer spent most of the race running in the top 20 and was as high as eighth before he was knocked out in a late-race crash. Meanwhile, Moffitt drove within the limits of his experience and the car and ran a smart race at the end. Avoiding the wrecks and deteriorating cars that dropped so many others, Moffitt scored an eighth place finish that surprised many casual observers.
To be sure, the team still isn't where it once was. When the Richmond race ended, MWR was a three car team that had just placed two of those in NASCAR's 12 car playoffs. Vickers won a race in the third car and was already announced as the team's full time driver for the following season. All three cars had full-season sponsorship from companies with deep investments into NASCAR. The team was rubbing shoulders with NASCAR's elite and looked poised to join the Hendricks and Gibbs of the world in fighting for Cup supremacy. A rookie's eighth place finish doesn't fully erase the memories of just how close MWR was and how far backward the team slid.
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Yet it does show that Michael Waltrip Racing hasn't thrown in the towel just yet on achieving those dreams. When facing financial problems, the first thing to go are dollars spent that net no current return. While no longer capable of driving on a weekly basis, Waltrip was perfectly capable of performing test duties if needed. Even though they lost roughly a third of their sponsorship dollars, only a reported 15% of the team's staff was let go at the end of 2013. Their performance might have stepped backward in 2014 but the team was still there every weekend and still achieved eight top five and 24 top ten finishes between Vickers and Bowyer.
Moreover, the team still has a tremendous advantage in terms of the financial situation of its two fully-funded teams. Both the #15 (Five Hour Energy) and the #55 (Aaron's Rentals) have sponsors that are on the side of the car for virtually the entire season. Both have been with the team for years and have activated their sponsorships by building ad campaigns with the drivers and team. Unlike many of their competitors, MWR doesn't have to rotate a series of different companies in over the course of the year and can focus instead on deepening the relationships they already have. They can also focus their internal sales resources on wooing potential partners to re-open the third team instead of fighting day-to-day for survival.
If MWR can indeed find that right partner, Moffitt could well prove to be the key to making the operation relevant once again. Atlanta represents an excellent test of a driver's ability to compete at the Sprint Cup level. It's an intermediate track similar in layout to the bulk of NASCAR's schedule. So success here can translate well to multiple other races. Yet it also features a weathered surface where the ability to manage your equipment and stay out of trouble is critical. Moffitt did both in his very first Cup race for MWR.
MWR feature on Brett Moffitt prior to Atlanta
Just as important as his finish was, Moffitt also clearly earned the respect of his potential peers with the run. Moffitt's twitter timeline was overflowing with comments from other drivers congratulating Brett on a race well run. Even the sport's most popular driver got in on it, telling Moffitt that he, “Saw ya out there holding a smooth wheel.” The respect he gained will serve Moffitt well in the weeks and months ahead. It will open doors on the track and may well open some off the track as well.
Moffit's experience in stock cars is extremely limited. At 22 years of age, he has virtually no experience at the highest levels of stock car racing. But he finished either second or third in points from 2009 through 2013 in the K&N Pro East series. He may not be ready for a full time Cup ride. However, Moffitt drove like he belonged on Sunday. Performances of that kind can make a driver no one wanted suddenly in demand and I'd imagine that he will be in a full time Xfinity ride sooner rather than later.
All of that good news from Sunday adds into another shot in the arm coming next weekend. Brian Vickers owns the team's last victory, a win at New Hampshire in 2013. He's been extremely unlucky from a health perspective over the past few years but he is a talented driver who the team hopes can bring home more trophies in the future. If MWR can provide the cars, both Bowyer and Vickers have proven in the past that they are capable of winning races.
Yet the key remains for MWR to find a way to bring that third team back to the racetrack. Three teams means three sets of information from practice and raceday. It means three different perspectives in drivers' meetings. It also means taking full advantage of investments made in the past when the team still had three teams at the track every weekend. The only way that third team returns is if the team has a combination of sponsor and driver ready to take the wheel. If Moffitt can put up more performances like this, the sponsor could soon follow. So Sunday's race was indeed a small step in the right direction for MWR. But it could be a giant leap for Brett Moffitt.