When you see Michael Waltrip on television, it's easy to think, "What does this guy know about running a NASCAR team?"
But despite an on-air persona where it often looks as if he's playing for the cameras, Waltrip in reality has a firm grasp about the inner workings of the sport – particularly when it comes to leading his multi-car team currently in the midst of a breakthrough season.
Now in its sixth year of existence, Michael Waltrip Racing is off to its best start ever, with two drivers inside the top 10 –Martin Truex Jr. (fourth) and Clint Bowyer (10th) – and its third car, shared by Mark Martin and Brian Vickers, sitting seventh overall in the owner standings.
It's a phenomenal start for an organization which has won just twice, has never placed a car in the Chase and was often viewed by many as a group of underachievers.
Although there are many reasons for the turnaround, the main catalyst has to do with the man whose name is on the company stationary.
At a time when other teams in the garage have struggled to find sponsorship – including powerhouse teams like Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing – MWR has been just fine in that department. That's due in part to Waltrip's gregarious personality, which helps attract potential sponsors and keeps the ones that he already does have in the fold – and happy.
"Michael sees how to make it work for the sponsor better than a lot of people that I've been around," Martin said Friday at Kansas. "...Their organization is well-sponsored and that hasn't been done based on performance...it's been based on how to make it work for the sponsors and they're very determined to get that performance on the race track."
This includes 5-Hour Energy, which originally signed on for what was a partial commitment of 25 races, but announced Friday it was upping its commitment to the team by increasing its sponsorship of Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota to a full-season deal.
With all those sponsorship dollars in its back pocket, MWR can spend money to add personnel to help make its Toyotas go faster.
"From the time we started at Michael Waltrip Racing, we knew we were going to have to focus on what was happening off the track, because the on-track was going to take some time," said Ty Norris, the general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing. "I liken it to the groups in the garage who have spent a lot of time working on their cars, and all the sudden when they've got horsepower, they're really the team to beat.
"I feel like that's part of what we've been able to do, so our off-track is something we've focused on for all these years. Now that we are starting to get the on-track performances of what we expect ,it's been phenomenal."
That increase in performance can be attributed to MWR going out this offseason and bringing in Bowyer and Martin to wheel two of its cars, hiring Brian Pattie to crew chief Bowyer's machine and getting new competitor director Scott Miller to make all the puzzle pieces fit.
Now that MWR is running up front more often, the focus turns to keeping the momentum going and hopefully culminating with MWR finally getting one of its cars into the Chase.
On that front, it's hard not to be optimistic.
"I think we're happy with where we're at in the points and we want to kind of keep doing the same thing," Truex said. "You have to constantly keep moving forward.
"... We're going to keep pushing and really I think that kind of the whole atmosphere at MWR since the middle of last year (has been), 'We're not good enough, we're never going to be good enough – we always have to keep working.' That's been a good thing for us. That's what's put us where we're at and hopefully at the end of the season, we'll be better than we are now and we'll be right where we want to be."
Even a grizzled veteran can't help but feel excited about the transformation.
"With the extra energy that was put into there with Scott Miller and Clint Bowyer and Brian Pattie and all, everything seems like it's clicking right now," Martin said. "It's really, really a lot of fun whenever you can perform up to your expectations or exceed, that's good times.
"They want to win and they're very close now. It's neat to be a part of the organization right now because they are so close."