- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Michael Waltrip has a lot going on these days, most of it having very little to do with the time he spends behind the wheel of his No. 55 Dodge.
Preparing to open a two-car Nextel Cup Series team as part of Toyota's entry into NASCAR's top level, Waltrip's overseeing the construction of a new shop and hiring employees to begin building a fleet of cars.
In case that's not enough, he'll also field two Busch Series teams next year and needs to secure drivers for that part of the operation, as well.
Then, there's his current Cup effort, which is run in conjunction will Bill Davis Racing. The team is 36th in owners' points, meaning Waltrip has to qualify on his time at Richmond, as he's not guaranteed a berth in the field. To that end, Derrick Finley, who had been the crew chief, is returning to Davis' operation as an engineer.
Calling the shots at Richmond will be the trio of Bobby Kennedy, Larry Carter and Jason Overstreet.
"It is extremely important that we use all of the resources we have at both Bill Davis Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing to get our program where it needs to be," Waltrip said. "Bobby, Larry and Jason have been working on getting our Burger King cars built that we will run with Bill Elliott this year. Getting those guys to the track and working with our NAPA car will not only help us now but it will also allow them to gather at-track data for that effort, as well."
Davis' operation also will be part of Toyota's program next year, meaning both teams are working on this year while also building an entirely new foundation.
It's a lot to ask, but Waltrip said the future isn't distracting from the task at hand.
"I've got a great group of people," he said. "I love Monday through Thursday, when I get to be a part of what we are building. It's just a wonderful opportunity to be able to compete with a team that I will own and with drivers I think can win championships and races. The only distraction, or the thing that's got on my nerve over the last few months, is the way the Toyota story has been told in the media. You have got it all wrong, and let me explain why.
"Every time I read something, it says Toyota is after Ricky Rudd, Toyota is after crew members. They're not. Toyota's relationship with me is that they are my manufacturer. They have committed to build cars and engines, not unlike Richard Childress gets help from General Motors or Robert Yates gets help from Ford. It's the same thing. When [Ray] Evernham's crew guys went to Yates, you didn't say, 'Ford took them! That is crazy. That is a travesty! This is going to drive racing prices out of control.' No, you said Yates got Ray's crew guys.
"Well, Toyota is in California, building the marketing plans, building their engines, working on their stuff for 2007 and beyond. I am in North Carolina with Ty Norris and my folks, and we're hiring people. We're making the decisions on which direction our team needs to go in. It doesn't have anything to do with Toyota."
Waltrip said he has talked with Dale Jarrett, and NASCAR Scene is reporting that Jarrett will leave Robert Yates Racing when his contract expires after this season to drive Waltrip's second car next season.
At Talladega, Waltrip said he had not received an answer from Jarrett about Jarrett's plans for next season. Waltrip expects David Reutimann, who is driving for brother Darrell Waltrip in the Craftsman Truck Series, to be behind the wheel of one of his Busch Series cars next year.
For now, though, all the focus will be on Waltrip as he builds his Cup team. And he insists he's the one calling the shots, not Toyota's executives.
"I'm running my team," he said. "Now, when we make a decision, obviously, we call our partners. … But we are not receiving any direction from Toyota. They want to sell more cars. They want to sell more trucks. Toyota wants to come into the sport and blend into the landscape, just like they did in the truck series. No beating their chest. No saying, 'We're No. 1, we're the greatest.' They just want to slide in and get a chance to race against the other guys.
"Toyota is more concerned about its business than they are about how I run mine. I don't call [Toyota's executives] and tell them they need to change the Camry a little bit for tall people. I just let them do that. They're busy making marketing plans. They're busy building an engine and developing the engineering support to back their teams. Toyota trusts their teams to make the decisions on the people we are going to put in their cars.
"I just wish we could all agree and say, 'I understand what you're saying, Mike.' Maybe Toyota's lack of presence in the Cup garage has given you the chance to listen to the comments of the other owners and manufacturers and then say, 'OK where do I get the rebuttal from on the Toyota side?' They're at the truck races competing. So then you say, 'Well, there is no rebuttal, so I guess that guy must be right.' I generally like to hide in my motor home all day long when I'm not in my car. But I will make myself available to you if you have a question at any time. If you want me to respond to something someone has said regarding Toyota, come find me. Because the way it's being reported isn't correct."
One other certainty is that Waltrip needs to qualify well at Richmond or risk watching the race from his home or his motor home.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
11dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz