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NASCAR Truck Series team owner possesses keen eye for talent

MB Motorsports isn’t a NASCAR’s superteam, but it’s long been where future stars get their first opportunity to shine.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The profusion of congratulatory messages included notes from Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, NASCAR officials and even members of other teams. It's the kind of outpouring where you'd think MB Motorsports had won a Camping World Truck Series race for the first time in the team's 20-year history.

But there was no win for Mike Mittler's single-truck outfit, though it certainly came close. The responses all stemmed from an inspiring effort by Bobby Pierce, who finished a close second to Christopher Bell in last week's Mud Summer Classic at Eldora Speedway.

The runner-up was remarkable for myriad reasons. Pierce was making his first NASCAR start of any kind and who before Eldora, had never turned lap in a truck. Driving with flair, he repeatedly smacked the wall in attempt to catch Bell over the final laps to the point Pierce's truck became battered almost beyond description, with the decklid flapping precariously in the wind.

That he was driving for MBM, which only has four full-time employees, further added to the feel-good story. Small teams lacking sponsorship and a wealth of resources aren't supposed to win in modern-day NASCAR where powerhouse organizations dominate all three national divisions.

"Carl Edwards was prepared for the opportunity. So was Jamie. And we made magic."

And yet Pierce and MBM nearly did the seemingly impossible. Finishing an oh-so-close second to Bell, driving for Toyota's developmental team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. Eldora marked just the second time Mittler had ever seen one of his truck's finish inside the top 10 in 213 races. The last such occurrence came 13 years ago when Edwards registered an eighth at Kansas Speedway.

"I don't make any money off of racing; my only goal in racing is to minimize how much I lose," Mittler told SB Nation Tuesday. "I do everything wrong as an owner. I spend my own money. I do a lot of crazy things to keep going because I love it. But to have a run like we had at Eldora makes it worth it."

Recognizing the limitations of MBM, Mittler isn't the kind of guy to make declarative statements regarding the performance of his team. Yet standing in Eldora's infield watching Pierce finesse his way around the half-mile dirt track, Mittler knew this night was different.

"We went in there confident that we could run up front, maybe not win, but really be a contender," Mittler said. "And I think about the fourth lap on the track I said to myself, ‘Boy, oh boy, this is our day.'

"Afterward, I asked myself, ‘Did that just happen? Did we really run second here?' Every day it kinda sinks in a little bit more."

Prior to the Mud Summer Classic, if MBM had a distinction it was as the team that had given Edwards, McMurray and Regan Smith their first chance to compete in NASCAR on the national level. And for having played a pivotal role in keeping Brad Keselowski's once floundering career afloat.

Mittler, whose racing team and machine tool business are both located in Missouri, had known McMurray's father for years, as the McMurrays hailed from Joplin, Mo. And as the future Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner progressed through the ranks, Mittler kept tabs, eventually putting McMurray in his truck 15 races spread across the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

How Mittler and Edwards became associated is due to the latter's persistence and cunning.

Edwards introduced himself saying he wanted to drive MBM's No. 63 truck; a conversation Mittler didn't give much consideration. A few weeks later, Edwards again sought Mittler out asking for a chance. Except this time Edwards brought along his mom and girlfriend.

"They were both very attractive ladies," Mittler remembers. "And he said, ‘I made dang sure I was going to get your attention, so I brought both with on purpose."

Edwards would make seven starts for MBM, parlaying that into a ride with Roush Fenway Racing.

Keselowski's time with MBM consisted of a just two races, but it was what Mittler did behind the scenes eight years ago that helped him earn a spot in the sport.

"Brad was absolutely desperate," Mittler said. "He said to me Mike, ‘I don't own an automobile, I don't have a job, I don't have any money, I don't know what I'm doing to do.' So I told him, come to Milwaukee with us and let's see what happens."

Wanting Keselowski to maintain a garage presence in case an opportunity arose, Mittler paid Keselowski's expenses to come with the team for that week's race at the Milwaukee Mile. And by happenstance that's exactly what occurred, forever changing Keselowski's career.

During the race Ted Musgrave intentionally collided with another driver under caution, earning a one-race suspension. That prompted Musgrave's team to hire Keselowski as a substitute. A fortuitous break the 2012 Sprint Cup champion used to land a seat with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Xfinity Series team.

"The following week Junior called and things took off for him," Mittler said. "We were just fortunate that when these guys with talent came along we were able to make it happen for them."

Time will tell whether Pierce is the next star Mittler will cultivate. With a background consisting almost exclusively of racing on dirt, the 18-year-old has just a handful of starts on paved ovals.

But Mittler is confident in Pierce's talent, seeing similar characteristics to others he's helped launch to great acclaim. Pierce's next race in the No. 63 truck will come in October at Martinsville Speedway.

"There is no Midas touch," Mittler said. "If you're prepared, we can give you an opportunity and maybe we can make some magic. Bobby Pierce was prepared for the opportunity. Carl Edwards was prepared for the opportunity. So was Jamie. And we made magic.

"It's all about having passion, focus and drive to want to succeed. They all have that."