DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. – Sidled up to Ty Norris the other day just to say hello to a guy who has been in racing a long time and has held several important positions.
As an aside, I don’t think he’s aged a bit in 20 years or so. But I digress.
Today, Norris serves in an upper management role at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Before I could get out the words, “Hey, Ty, how you doin’?” he said:
“We are going to be good this year. We aren’t going to sneak up on anybody like we did last year, but we are going to be good.”
It certainly wasn’t hard to figure out what he was talking about. In 2012, MWR had a breakout, banner season and took major steps toward establishing itself as an elite organization.
Surprising? Indeed it was, especially to the many observers who felt MWR, which began full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup competition in 2007, would never escape the mediocrity it endured for all those seasons.
However, last year MWR hit everyone from the blind side. One of its drivers, Clint Bowyer, won three races and finished second in the final point standings – easily the team’s all-time best season performance.
Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., didn’t win a race but he was no slouch. He compiled 19 top-10 finishes and, like Bowyer, made the Chase. He wound up 11th in points.
Meanwhile, Mark Martin continued to race on a limited schedule for the team, competing in 24 events. He will do it again this year.
Most folks will admit MWR snuck up on them last year but, as Norris indicated, that won’t be the case in 2013.
And there will be expectations.
“We had a great year last year,” Bowyer said. “Right now in 2013, that year doesn’t mean anything
“We’ve got to prove ourselves all over
again and it’s even harder this time. Nobody expected us to do that. We didn’t have any pressure and we didn’t have any expectations.
“We just went out and had fun and enjoyed every week and just naturally or effortlessly had success week in and week out.”
Speaking of startled people, Bowyer was one of them. He came to MWR after seven seasons with Richard Childress Racing, with which he likely would have stayed had sponsorship been found.
Bowyer was in a new world. He hardly knew anyone at MWR and certainly had no idea his season would turn out as it did.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Bowyer said. “I had an idea of what it could be, but certainly to see all that play out the way it was presented and the way it was sold – the way it was supposed to work – was surprising.
“It was like you wrote it on a piece of paper and held it up – these are the bullet points and this is what’s going to happen and this is how it’s going to happen so sit back and watch.
“That’s exactly what happened.”
Truex Jr. was the established MWR driver when Bowyer came aboard and he, too, admitted the team seemed to overachieve.
He thinks it can do it again in 2013.
“It’s going to be important to be able to keep up with the changes, to be thinking ahead all the time and try to really be prepared for just about anything,” Truex Jr. said. “But, I feel like we’ve got it good – obviously, with what we did last year, where we came from as a team in the past year and a half to get to where we are.
“I feel like the general confidence inside of the team, the way we transformed the team before and what we were able to do throughout last year, I think is definitely going to play in our favor.
“I think it’s something that we hope will continue to keep working – that recipe that we used for success last year.
The “changes” to which Truex Jr. referred are many, but none are as dramatic as the new car that will be used in 2013 – the “Generation 6” vehicle.
Perhaps the most important challenge teams face right now is to quickly adapt to the new car and, consequently, realize the potential it offers.
Truex Jr. seems to be very comfortable with the situation.
“I feel like the car fits me a little bit better,” he said. “This car demands you to drive it. It wants you to be aggressive. It likes to be pushed.
“The car we’ve been running the last few years is the opposite – it’s always telling you to slow down and wait and be patient and be smooth.
“I don’t like that. I like to attack. I like to drive the car. It’s so much fun to drive this new car because of that.
“It challenges you as a driver to push it and I really enjoy that, so I think it fits my style better and hopefully that will be the case come race time.”
If Truex Jr. is suggesting he thinks MWR will get a bead on the new car quickly, that bodes well for the team.
Even so, the 2013 season will be a challenge. The team will be playing a new role in the season’s drama – that of contender.
“We’ve got expectations – not from the media, not from the fans, but from within,” Bowyer said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that can be a danger.
“Certainly, we’re going to work hard. I like the things I’ve seen. I like the testing. At Daytona our car was fast and, more importantly, we went to Charlotte and intermediate race tracks and had good speed right off the truck.
“I was like, ‘Put it back in the box and let’s go racing.’ That showed me that hopefully we picked up right where we left off.”
OBSERVATIONS: Matt Kenseth, in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, triggered a multi-car accident during the first practice session for the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15.
Kenseth moved down the track in the fourth turn, tagging Kurt Busch in the process and setting off a melee that included Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin.
A crash is the very thing teams wanted to avoid in practice simply because there is a relatively short supply of sheet metal for the “Generation 6” car.
Kevin Harvick, in a Chevrolet, topped the speed chart at 197.36 mph, followed by Aric Almirola at 197.32 mph in a Ford.
Martin, Busch and Edwards adopted backup cars.
In the final practice session, Denny Hamlin posted the fastest speed of 195.05 mph.
But, overall, speeds don’t mean much. Several drivers chose to practice individually and avoid drafting. Those that drafted didn’t do so in tight, two-or-three packs.
In one man’s opinion, this means that while certainly the teams did learn a great deal, they still do not know how the cars will react in the draft – which is so important at a restrictor-plate track like Daytona.
Certainly hey would have liked to do so but didn’t have the opportunity – or chose not to take advantage of one – in either practice session.
Which means that when they race in the Sprint Unlimited there is much that is still unknown.