Ryan: Bristol shows the grit of Michael Waltrip Racing

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Rob Kauffman gritted his teeth for much of Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, this might have been a familiar feeling after an agonizing week in which he delivered the news to 200 employees that the team would be shuttered after the season.

But this wasn’t the soul-sapping angst of fretting about an uncertain future.

This was the exhilarating anxiety of a team that raced with nothing left to lose Saturday night and nearly left with a victory on the rough-and-tumble 0.533-mile oval.

With 150 laps remaining, MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and David Ragan were running 2-3, and Kauffman, watching from a Speedway Motorsports Inc. suite overlooking the 160,000-seat bullring, politely asked forgiveness from a visitor while he gnashed his molars.

“I said, ‘Give me one second, when the guys are side by side, I grit my teeth a lot,’” Kauffman said with a laugh. “So sadly, 100 laps later, I gritted my teeth for a different reason.”

On Lap 371, disaster struck just as things seemed to be unfolding so well for MWR.

Just as it always seems to do during the team’s tumultuous, star-crossed existence over the past decade.

The flagship of Toyota’s ballyhooed entry into NASCAR’s premier series … that was plunged into a jet fuel controversy in the opening race of its nightmarish first season.

An organization on the cusp of entering the top echelon of Sprint Cup two years ago … that slowly sank into oblivion after the fateful night it all unraveled in a team orders scandal at Richmond International Raceway.

The narrative continued Saturday night at Bristol with MWR poised to deliver one of the season’s most unlikely outcomes.

Battling for third place, Jimmie Johnson and Ragan collided off the second turn. Ragan made contact with Bowyer, spun into the wall with heavy damage and finished 40th.

Bowyer got punted by Brad Keselowski and fell to 12th for repairs, but he rebounded and drove all the way to fifth over the final 100 laps.

“I drove my ass off and just came up short,” Bowyer said. “But (crew chief) Billy Scott and all these guys, they’re digging.

“It’s fun to be a part of a group that can answer the call. When you’ve got to dig down and reach down and get a little bit more to get in that Chase and be a part of an elite group. These guys are up for the challenge. They are really finding that extra something that you have to find for a championship-caliber team to compete.”

With the specter of unemployment looming, Bowyer’s team is trying to stay laser-focused through extraordinary circumstances that easily could undermine morale.

But the esprit de corps was evident at Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota as driver and owner made the rounds congratulating team members. Eventually, their paths crossed while Bowyer was being interviewed.

“Good job, bud,” Kauffman told his driver.

“Sorry, man,” Bowyer replied.

Though not his fault, he still was hung up on the wreck that ruined an impressive run for Ragan, who had qualified in the top five for the third time in the past six races after replacing Brian Vickers (blood clots) in the No. 55 two months ago.

“Really bad deal,” Bowyer said. “It’s just frustrating. David has done such a good job with coming in and stepping up to the plate, filling in that seat and that void and being a great teammate.”

It still wasn’t a total loss for the team. Clinging to the final provisional spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer increased his cushion with two races remaining in the regular season.

He has a 35-point lead on Aric Almirola after his first top five since June 29 at Sonoma and his fourth top 10 in the past five weeks.

“You don’t want to get in the Chase and be just part of it and be the first one out,” said Bowyer, who lost 27 points off his lead with a 41st last week at Michigan International Speedway. “You want to hit this thing with stride, momentum, confidence.

“We had a big hiccup last week, but nonetheless, we were again a top-five car. These are the cars we’ve got to keep unloading. It’s fun to see these guys step up to the plate when we need it.”

Kauffman seemed pleased, too, but stopped short of agreeing he was “reveling” in a strong finish after a difficult week.

“We only really revel if you have Gatorade and confetti on the car,” he said. “A top five is nice, but we’re here to win.”

They won’t be much longer.

But Saturday night at least proved the team’s true grit.

Kauffman might not be done gritting his teeth — for a good reason.