How Michael Waltrip Racing Can Bounce Back After Losing NAPA's Sponsorship

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2013

Saying he's sorry won't be enough. Michael Waltrip has to do everything he can now to regain trust from the sport, fans, the media and current and future sponsors.
Saying he's sorry won't be enough. Michael Waltrip has to do everything he can now to regain trust from the sport, fans, the media and current and future sponsors.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Sponsors come and go in NASCAR. What looks like a relationship that will last for decades is sometimes over in just a few short years.

It's not personal; it's just business.

Michael Waltrip should count himself fortunate that he had the support of NAPA Auto Parts for 13 seasons. Many sponsorships don't last half that long.

But the decision by NAPA to pull the plug on what had been one of the most rewarding and memorable—who can forget all of the great TV commercials spawned by this corporate marriage—partnerships that NASCAR has ever seen is proof positive that maybe you can screw around on the racetrack, but you should never embarrass the guys who pay the freight.

When Waltrip began laying the groundwork for his multi-car operation, NAPA was right there alongside him.

When Waltrip battled back from the alleged jet fuel found in his race cars before the 2007 Daytona 500, NAPA stayed the course.

When Waltrip would cut himself shaving, I wouldn't be surprised if he bled NAPA blue—the partnership, sponsorship and friendship between him and the auto parts giant was that close and tight.

In nine weeks, however, that marriage will come to an end—arguably many years sooner than both sides had likely ever envisioned.

To its credit, NAPA made it very clear that it would not tolerate the shenanigans and race manipulation that MWR so clearly did two weeks ago at Richmond.

NAPA also made it clear that it has no space in its corporate heart—or budget—for cheaters.

That's integrity; something the folks at MWR didn't have at Richmond, where they blatantly and outright cheated.

I'll give Michael himself the benefit of the doubt. Even though his name is on the front door of his massive headquarters in Cornelius, NC, I'm still not 100 percent convinced that he knew what general manager Ty Norris and the crew chiefs of MWR's three Sprint Cup teams had planned at Richmond.

But whether or not Waltrip had advance knowledge of what Norris and his cohorts were going to do in order to assure that Martin Truex Jr. would make the Chase for the Sprint Cup is irrelevant.

Even where Clint Bowyer, the lone MWR representative in this year's Chase, ultimately finishes in the standings nine weeks from now is also irrelevant (unless he wins the championship, which would only exacerbate the shame MWR cast upon NASCAR in this scandal).

What is perhaps the most pressing and immediate concern is whether the two other high-dollar sponsors that have been affiliated with MWR decide to follow NAPA's lead.

If 5-Hour Energy and Aaron's walk too, a lot of people are going to be out of a job relatively soon at MWR. It is unlikely that Waltrip and business partner Rob Kaufmann can shoulder anywhere between the $45 and $60-plus million it would cost to run three full-time Cup teams in 2014.

Worse yet, at this late stage of the season, most teams have already secured sponsorship deals for next year. There will be very few opportunities for MWR to attract corporate replacements for NAPA and 5-Hour Energy and Aaron's should the latter two follow suit and bolt.

And, quite frankly, what potential sponsor would want to align itself with a team that was caught cheating red-handed?

Let's face it, who doesn't enjoy watching Michael Waltrip play the clown on TV, especially in the NAPA and Aaron's commercials? He's done some pretty goofy things over the years in an effort to not only draw attention to his race teams but also to promote his sponsors' products.

And all that tomfoolery has worked to make MWR and its corporate sponsors household names.

But now, no one is laughing. If 5-Hour Energy and Aaron's also leave at season's end, what was one of the most vibrant racing organizations in the sport just over two weeks ago—coming into Richmond—could soon be on the verge of extinction.

Who is going to sponsor MWR as a result? Who is going to want to pick up Bowyer, Truex and Brian Vickers to drive for their teams (especially since almost all of the prime gigs for next season have already been filled)?

No one, that's who.

To date, Waltrip has skirted the issue for the most part.  It's time for him to step up to the plate and take immediate blame for his employees' actions. After all, the buck stops with him; he's the one that hired Norris, Bowyer, Truex, Vickers, the various crew chiefs and team personnel.

Perhaps Waltrip doesn't think anyone will notice, much like Norris had hoped no one would notice the various attempts at trickery at Richmond. Yet, if Waltrip thinks that fans, the media and his fellow competitors will look the other way, he is only fooling himself.

Who, if anyone, will sponsor Martin Truex Jr. next season after NAPA leaves at the end of this season?
Who, if anyone, will sponsor Martin Truex Jr. next season after NAPA leaves at the end of this season?Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There's one thing Michael should know—you can try, but you will likely never fool the sponsors. Without them, even the most talented driver behind the wheel will likely never get off of pit road without the sponsor's deep seven-and-eight-figure checks.

Waltrip is scheduled to have a press conference Friday morning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to address the NAPA departure. If he's smart—and Waltrip is indeed one of the most intelligent team owners in the business, his clown persona in commercials notwithstanding—Waltrip will throw himself and his organization at the mercy of the public court of opinion.

He should admit 100 percent culpability and beg for forgiveness, promising race fans, the media and every other team, driver, crew chief and team owner that an incident similar to Richmond will never happen again.

Funny thing—Waltrip did just that six years ago at Daytona. It took a long time for fans to trust MWR after that incident. However, they eventually came around.

Now that an even more egregious attempt to cheat has cost MWR's Truex a spot in the Chase, as well as several hundred thousands of dollars in fines and penalties, one thing stands out above all else.

When a driver makes the Chase, it typically means approximately $3 to $6 million dollars in incentive bonuses. But with MWR losing NAPA and it's yearly check, probably $15 to $20 million, something tells me that if MWR had it to do all over again, they'd have played everything fair and square.

Losing $15 to $20 million—and potentially as much as $60 million—as opposed to $3 to $6 million, by not making the Chase, is a terrible return on investment; don't you think?

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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