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Waltrip Team Rebounds After Rough Start

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[February 16, 2008]  DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Michael Waltrip's interest in numbers focuses on mph and rpm, while new partner Robert Kauffman is more of a P&L guy.

That's just fine with Waltrip, who's still recovering from a disastrous first season as an owner-driver.

Last February, Waltrip had to apologize to Toyota, his sponsors and fans after NASCAR inspectors discovered his team used an illegal fuel additive in his car for Daytona 500 pole qualifying.

Then things got worse.

"We didn't have the infrastructure to be able to build a competitive car week in and week out," Waltrip said. "It became pretty obvious in a hurry. A few months later, it became obvious that I was going to go broke trying."

So he got smart and did the obvious thing. He found an investor - financier Kauffman, who became a 50-50 partner in the team last May.

Kauffman rescued Waltrip from "a whole lot of debt," clarified the team's weaknesses and helped get the right people in the right jobs.

That's making Waltrip's second season as an owner-driver far less stressful.

"He literally wagered his entire life in starting up this race team," said Michael Waltrip Racing driver Dale Jarrett. "To have a lot of things not go his way would have broken most people."

Instead, Waltrip will start the 50th running of NASCAR's biggest race from the outside of the front row, with a shot a winning it for a third time.

Joining him will be MWR drivers David Reutimann and Jarrett. Reutimann made it in as the fourth fastest driver in pole qualifying, and Jarrett raced his way into the lineup in his 150-mile qualifier.

Kauffman will be watching.

Co-president and one of the founding principals of Fortress Investment Group, Kauffman's primarily responsible for the company's European investment activities and makes his home in London.

The unlikely union of the homespun Waltrip and the wealthy, sophisticated Kauffman came about through a mutual friend, North Carolina businessman John Harris.

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"I like cars and motorcycles and things with engines," Kauffman said Friday. "That's kind of my main hobby besides my day job. I set up a little business in Concord, N.C., to buy and store and sell primarily American muscle cars.

Neither Waltrip nor Kauffman give details on the financial details of the deal.

"One thing that's been interesting is I asked these guys, 'Well, what else do we need to get to be competitive?'" Kauffman said. "The first reaction is, 'Spend money, buys things.' ... I think we make sure we have what we need, but it's not a matter of you go buy this really expensive widget and it's going to put you at the front of the grid. It doesn't work like that. It's old-fashioned hard work and being organized, I think."

Waltrip has solidified his organization, hiring technical director Dr. Eric Warren, chief financial officer Larry Johns and former open-wheel and NASCAR team owner Cal Wells as executive vice president.

"I think it takes time for the culture to change," Waltrip said. "But I know right now we are far ahead of where we were a year ago. That's very rewarding."

These days, Waltrip's happy to leave the finances to others. At one of their first meetings, Waltrip said Kauffman took out a financial spreadsheet.

"I said, 'Wait a minute,' and went and got a setup sheet from one of our tests," Waltrip said. "I said, 'What do you see?' He said, 'A bunch of numbers that don't make any sense to me.' And I said, 'Well, that one doesn't make any sense to me.' So we know what our roles are."

Come Sunday, Waltrip's is racing.

[Associated Press; By MIKE HARRIS]

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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