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Sunday's race could be key for Michael Waltrip Racing

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012

Since its inception in 2007, Michael Waltrip Racing has never sent a driver into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In fact, no driver running full time for the organization has ever finished the season ranked higher than 16th in the series standings.

As odd as it may seem, Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International may provide the opportunity for MWR to lock up two spots in the 12-driver field gunning for this season's championship.

On the surface, a road course race doesn't sound like one that could produce such a game-changer.

Consider this:

• While he has no wins this season, team driver Martin Truex Jr. is fifth in points and has a stout record at the Glen, including three finishes of sixth or better in six career starts. • While driver Clint Bowyer has never been known as a road-course ace, his lone victory this season came in June at the road course race at Sonoma, Calif.

• While Brian Vickers is only running a partial schedule this year in the No. 55 Toyota, he, too, had a great race at Sonoma, finishing fourth.

Wins or solid finishes by both Truex and Bowyer on Sunday could go a long way toward locking up their invitations to the championship Chase.

A win or another strong performance from Vickers will help show MWR's improvement in 2012 is no fluke.

“We've had strong cars on the road courses the past few years. This year at Sonoma, we had a strong car and got tore up at the end unfortunately, like we seem to every year there,” Truex said. “We had a lot of speed, obviously Clint dominated the race (and) Brian was fast.

“We have been strong all year. The coolest thing is every week I go to the track, I'm very optimistic and have a lot of confidence in my team right now with what we've been able to accomplish.”

Truex said what is most evident this year is MWR's big performance gains across the board and at almost every track.

The statistics don't lie.

Prior to this season, MWR drivers had a total of 17 top-fives. Already this year, MWR drivers have 13 with 15 races left to go.

Until this season, MWR drivers had led a total of 656 laps in competition. Already this year, MWR drivers have led 623 laps.

Not only are MWR drivers getting good finishes, but they are running up front in position for wins as well.

“It's just a whole lot easier to do this job and be focused on what you're doing when your cars are good and your team believes in you and you believe in your team,” Truex said.

“It's hard to come to the race track when you know you're not going to be competitive or your chances of being competitive are slim.

“I knew coming into this year I was going to have an opportunity and I wanted to be sure I made the most of that. I'm fortunate to be in this position.”

Only the top-10 in points are guaranteed a spot in the Chase, with the last two spots going to two wild card entries for drivers 11th to 20th in points with the most wins.

Bowyer currently holds the 10th spot, but he has a solid 59-point advantage over 11th place Kasey Kahne. It would take a monumental collapse for Bowyer to drop out of the 10th spot.

“I've just got to stay solid. Those single-digit finishes are going to be plenty good enough,” Bowyer said. “You just can't have the catastrophic day.

“We've just got to get through here, keep the thing on the race track, take care of the gear box and do the things we do each and every week.

“It's just more difficult to do that on these road courses.”

It could also provide the biggest reward.

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