HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — In these uncertain economic times, a sponsorship announcement was enough to bring out NASCAR's president.
Mike Helton was on hand Friday when Martin Truex and primary sponsor NAPA agreed to a three-year contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing.
"Thank you for believing in our sport," Helton told a top NAPA official who was on hand for the announcement.
The team has made dramatic improvement this season, going into Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway fifth in the Sprint Cup standings and looking to give Waltrip a spot in the Chase for the championship for the first time as a car owner. The team's other full-time driver, Clint Bowyer, is sixth in the points and also positioned to lock up a Chase berth.
"Our cars are performing well," said Waltrip, who also field a third car that he shares with Mark Martin and Brian Vickers. "I'm very optimistic about who we are. This news is just confidence. I know when Martin puts on that NAPA uniform today he is going to feel better than he ever has about who he is and where we're going."
NAPA has a long history sponsoring NASCAR and decided to stay on board in a major role, rather than a part-time deal that would've required Waltrip to seek additional backing. The announcement was good news for NASCAR, which has watched some of its biggest teams struggle to land full-season sponsorships since the economic downturn.
"We're right there," Waltrip said. "It will be great for the guys on the team to not have to worry about where their job is going to be next year. We're very excited about that and are looking forward to what we can do together."
Truex approached team co-owner Rob Kaufmann early in the season about a contract extension.
"I think the key thing is Martin's attitude toward getting it done," Waltrip said. "He came to Rob in April and said, 'I want to drive this car next year. Y'all figure it out. I'm your guy.' That's the kind of guy you want driving your race car."
Truex is confident of winning his first Cup championship, perhaps as soon as this year.
"My biggest fear this year was this deal falling apart and us not being able to realize our potential," he said. "I feel like we're not where we can get to yet, and I'm very, very happy that we'll be able to continue down that path."
Truex pointed to the closeness of the team, saying he wanted to remain with an organization that valued his input.
"The guys have given me a great opportunity here to be part of a team," he said. "I don't go home on Sunday night and sit there and wait for them to build my race cars better or bring me better stuff on Thursday. I go to the shop on Monday and I'm part of a team and part of building that process. It's been an awesome road."
A road that will go on for at least three more years.
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