How One Night Derailed the Future of Michael Waltrip Racing in Sprint Cup

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2013

Michael Waltrip was left to face many questions after the incident at Richmond.
Michael Waltrip was left to face many questions after the incident at Richmond.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

It is difficult to believe that only five weeks ago the future of Michael Waltrip Racing in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series seemed so bright.

On the eve of the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway, driver Clint Bowyer already had clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the hope of the organization was that teammate Martin Truex Jr. soon would, too.

A confident Bowyer seemed poised to actually contend for the championship. Truex needed to race his way into the Chase at Richmond, but his future seemed secure and full of untapped potential with primary sponsor NAPA Auto Parts already signed to serve as primary sponsor on his No. 56 Toyota for the next two seasons.

For a moment, it was all smiles for Truex and Bowyer after Richmond.
For a moment, it was all smiles for Truex and Bowyer after Richmond.Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports


It all changed in a Bowyer heartbeat. There was more to all that went down afterward than simply Bowyer’s alleged intentional spin, bringing out a late caution that was aimed at aiding Truex’s run at a Chase spot. But that was at the center of all that was to spin out of control afterward.

Within 48 hours, Truex was stripped of what he thought was a Chase berth honestly won. Shortly after that, NAPA bailed on the final two years of its sponsorship—costing MWR an estimated $35 million or more, according to NASCAR sources.

The collateral damage continued into this week, when MWR announced that next season it will field only two full-time cars instead of three. Truex is left in limbo, his career no longer on the flight path upward that he and everyone else thought he was finally on after years of unanticipated, frustrating mediocrity.

Truex now is expected to land a full-time ride at Furniture Row Racing, which fields the No. 78 Chevrolet driven into the Chase this season by Kurt Busch. So it’s not like Truex will be out of a job. But he is being forced to start over with a new team precisely at the moment when his old team appeared ready to blossom.

The bad news didn’t end there for MWR this week. Team owner Rob Kauffman also has announced that 15 percent of the current MWR workforce will be laid off by season's end, according to the Associated Press. Sources said that amounted to approximately 40 MWR employees who thought they were set for next season and beyond, and that the layoffs were inevitable fallout from the massive loss of dollars that flowed out the MWR doors with the NAPA defection.

And as if all that weren’t enough, fate kept kicking while MWR was down.

In an event totally unrelated to SpinGate, driver Brian Vickers suffered an unexpected health setback that likely will have a negative impact on next season as well. Vickers only recently had been hired as full-time driver of the No. 55 Toyota for next season, and had hoped to use the remainder of this season to work with the new team toward building a foundation as a title contender for 2014 and beyond.

Now he’s out of the car for at least the rest of this season after doctors diagnosed a blood clot in his right calf. It’s the last thing Vickers or MWR wanted or needed to hear.

Three years ago, Vickers was forced to miss nearly an entire season after undergoing heart surgery related to blood-clotting problems, which required him to be on blood-thinner medication afterward. You can’t race when you’re on blood thinners, and now Vickers is on them again. Doctors say they believe he’ll be off them and ready for the season-opening Daytona 500 next season, but who can know for sure at this point?

Jul 14, 2013; Loudon, NH, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brian Vickers celebrates winning the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Taken separately, the news about Vickers would have been difficult enough for MWR to withstand. Taken on top of all else that has transpired recently, it's potentially devastating. It's like a boxer absorbing one last shot to the midsection when he's already falling to the canvas after getting punched repeatedly in the face.

So to recap, in the span of a mere five weeks, MWR went from hoping to contend for the championship this season with two cars and next season with a solid three to an uncertain future in which Bowyer is the only driver they have left who seems solidly positioned with his team for next season.

Oh, and did we mention that despite earning enough points to get into the Chase, Bowyer hasn't won a single race this season, clearly indicating that there is work to be done within that team as well? Running a part-time schedule that included only 17 starts before getting sidelined, Vickers at least was able to get to Victory Lane once earlier this season in New Hampshire, as was Truex earlier in the season after winning on the road course at Sonoma.

Racing can be so cruel sometimes, even when the opening of wounds are self-inflicted.

As it turns out, Kauffman and MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip would have been better off going to Las Vegas and risking their organization’s long-term future on a spin of a roulette wheel rather than having misguided folks within MWR wager a short-term bet on the spin of Bowyer’s race car.