Clint Bowyer won three times in his first season at Michael Waltrip Racing. (Getty Images)
Bowyer finished second in the final standings after joining the team from Richard Childress Racing and was understandably ecstatic about the effort.
“Building a brand new team from scratch and be able to accomplish everything we have in a short amount of time, we're very proud of that,” Bowyer said. “I'm just proud of my guys -- Brian Pattie [crew chief] and everybody on our 5-hour Energy Toyota just did a really good job.”
Bowyer won three times in 2012 and accomplished the goal of putting an MWR car into the Chase for the first time, eventually coming up just one spot short of the title.
“Winning races, making the Chase -- that was our goals,” he said. “How we ran in that Chase, you never know. You never know how you're going to roll into the Chase with what momentum you're going to have going into that Chase and how long you can hold onto that momentum -- whatever that momentum is. It's neat to see how everything came together this year -- very proud of. Michael Waltrip has been in this sport awhile now and weathered the storm. It's neat to see some good things finally coming his way."
Bowyer was joined in the Chase by teammate Martin Truex Jr., who wound up finishing 11th in the final standings but not before putting together an outstanding regular season.
He earned seven top-fives and a career-high 19 top-10s during the campaign. But the former Nationwide Series champion was disappointed on not running better once the playoffs began.
“I think we've learned a lot as a team this year about how to be better prepared for next year going in, if we can be fortunate enough to get in the Chase,” Truex said. “(We) have a little bit better idea of what we need to do to make sure we don't have those bad races again.”
MWR's third entry didn't have too many bad races. Veteran Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and team owner Waltrip all shared time behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota and experienced success.
The addition of Martin, who competed in a limited schedule, gave the entire organization a lift Waltrip said was needed.
“We made a lot of changes before the season started in 2012 and one of the smartest ones we made was bringing Mark Martin on board,” Waltrip said. “In our meetings at the shop when he starts to speak everyone gets real quiet. He's like E.F. Hutton. When Mark talks everyone listens.”
MWR returns intact for the coming season with the full-time rides of Bowyer and Truex Jr. again joined by Martin, Vickers and Waltrip splitting the No. 55 starts.
Martin has signed for a 24-race slate and is optimistic about the team's fortunes.
“I love my schedule and I love our lineup,” said Martin, whose four poles in 2012 equal the most of any driver. “Brian has a tremendous amount of experience and talent for such a young driver and you saw at Talladega that Michael Waltrip is as good as anyone in a restrictor plate race.”
Vickers, who will also drive a full-time Nationwide Series Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, agreed to another partial schedule for MWR.
“It is amazing that we have a driver of Brian's talent available to drive our No. 55 Toyota again in 2013. He is a race-winning, Chase-caliber driver, and we are so happy to have him back. We gave Brian a difficult assignment in 2012, and not only has he thrived in the role, but he has made the entire team better,” Waltrip said.
“Believe me; I know how hard it is to run a part-time schedule with races spread throughout the schedule. I have been most impressed with his attitude towards the crew and his approach to his job and really feel confident that he can win with our team.”
There's no reason to believe MWR's 2012 performance was a fluke. But the organization must find a way to build on last year's success and take things up another notch in order to consistently challenge for wins as well as a championship.
“Look at how we ran in the Chase,” said Bowyer, who was also involved in a celebrated feud with Jeff Gordon last season -- a feud that boiled over to a fight among pit crews in Phoenix. “A bad race was sixth. We were bummed out. When you're running like that, it's pretty rare. … We were building a notebook and learning form each other and learning from the mistakes we learned the first couple of times around those racetracks.
“That's when you get a sense of what you've got for a race team and understand what you're up against. It gives me a lot of confidence and a lot of pride knowing what is in store.”
(Rankings reflect the expected 16 full-time teams in 2013.)