In recent years, there have been four large garages in North Carolina and a bunch of one or two-car teams trying to catch up to those organizations. In 2011, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing all fielded the maximum of four Sprint Cup Series cars, while Joe Gibbs Racing fielded a comparable three. They accounted for eight Chase spots; in 2010, they accounted for 10.
Of course, the idea of the "big four" took a major hit when Tony Stewart dominated the Chase to win the championship. He proved that you could leave a large team (JGR, in his case), go buy your own team and beat the big guys. Then again, he did enlist the help of Hendrick Motorsports in building his cars.
Likewise, there are other solid teams, like Penske Racing. That two-car team placed both drivers in last year's Chase despite the challenges associated with driving Dodge Chargers unique to the Cup field. Richard Petty Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing also field very compeitive teams.
But, the strength of Charlotte's four mega teams might have finally collapsed thanks in part to a move that most of us questioned. Michael Waltrip Racing has been the first of these second-tier teams to find success in fielding three, full-time Cup cars.
At the end of last season, MWR snatched former Chaser Clint Bowyer away from Richard Childress Racing. At the time, it seemed like a last resort move for Bowyer, who's contract was expiring at RCR. MWR seemed to be a small pond for such a big fish, but it's quickly looking like the pond has the contents to support Bowyer's career.
The team didn't put together much a Cup season in 2011. Martin Truex Jr. finished a distant 18th place in the Chase (made better because he jumped five spots in the season's final race), while David Reutiman limped home in 28th.
Truex Jr. found some great success at a younger age, winning back-to-back Nationwide Series championships in 2004-05, but 2007 was his only Chase appearance (he finished 11th). At the age of 31, the former highly-touted name seemed to be just another dude finding a way to cross the finish line on a weekly basis.
Things changed early this year when Truex Jr. was the surprise leader at the Daytona 500's mid-point and he claimed the $200,000 prize. Critics, like myself, considered it more just good timing on the part of the No. 56, but a 12th-place finish wasn't at all shabby on a superspeedway that claims so many cars.
He went on to contend strongly the next week at Phoenix, leading 29 laps before settling for seventh place. After a ho-hum 17th at Las Vegas, Truex Jr. again put up a great showing on a difficult track at Bristol and came home in third. The hot start leaves him in fourth place in the Cup standings, just 18 points back of leader Greg Biffle.
"I told a lot of people in the offseason that we've done a lot of things to make our team better," Truex Jr. said after the race. "I've got a lot of confidence in my team right now -- and obviously we've got good race cars."
While Truex Jr. has witnessed a resurgence with his long-time team, the big name acquisition of Bowyer has gone as well as anyone could have predicted. As I said, most of us thought that this would be a difficult transition for Boywer and that it would take everything he had to sniff the Chase this fall with the unheralded team. That doesn't appear to be the case.
Bowyer's finished 11th at Daytona, sixth at Las Vegas and fourth at Bristol. A 30th-place finish at Phoenix hurt his standing, but he's still locking down eighth place in the standings. More importantly, the No. 15 team seems to be bringing a strong car to the track each weekend.
"I see what's going on with this organization every day," Bowyer said in Bristol. "If other people, can't see it they must be blind. I'm just glad to be part of this organization and trying to get it to the next level."
The final, offseason additions to Michael Waltrip Racing came with the implementation of a third full-time car. However, the car didn't have a full-time driver, and it seemed more of a sponsor pulling ride than a car that would really contend for a whole lot of anything. The signing of 53-year-old Mark Martin, who was slated to share the car with the team's owner, seemed more of a way to keep a long-time driver and all-around good guy relevant than a way to ensure the No. 55 would compete each weekend.
However, Martin finished with two top-10s in the first three races of the season and sat in 10th after Las Vegas. Since he wasn't racing every weekend, he was replaced by the out-on-the-street Brian Vickers at Bristol. There might have been a new driver, but, as far as MWR was concerned, it didn't matter. Vickers went on to lead a career-high 125 laps before finishing fifth.
All four drivers that have stepped behind the wheel for Michael Waltrip Racing this season have put up strong performances. While I daresay that all four are probably better behind the wheel than their owner (who won just four races in a whopping 759 Cup starts), his shop is providing its drivers with some pretty solid cars with which to work.
The ability for Vickers to step in on short notice and race so well speaks volumes to the quality of the machine he had under him. (Before the anti-Toyota contingent makes a snood remark, it's worth noting Vickers had been racing Toyotas in his recent seasons with Red Bull Racing.)
Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the toughest race tracks on the Cup circuit. With the laps going by as fast as they do, it buries slower cars that quickly end up laps down and it's unforgiving to the drivers that make an extended stay in the pit for repairs. It's very difficult for any driver from any team to win these types of races. The fact that MWR's three entries finished 3-4-5 at such a track is no fluke.
"It wa a great day for us," said MWR Exec. VP of Competition, Scott Miller. "The only way it could have been better would have been to have the cars run one-two-three."
You can luck your way to a fuel mileage finish on the average cookie cutter. You can't luck your way through Thunder Valley. You need a good piece of equipment and a driver that knows how to handle it. Michael Waltrip Racing had that threefold on Sunday and proved it deserves to be considered as one of the Cup level's strongest race teams.