We have seen this year an example, an unfortunate one, of how an organization that is on the verge of competitive supremacy is perhaps now going to be fortunate to survive.
It wasn’t long ago that Michael Waltrip Racing was considered an up-and-coming organization with the resources and talent to win a championship.
It had steadily moved up the ranks to the point where many were not shy to compare it with Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
That was understandable. As this season rolled into its last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 7, MWR driver Clint Bowyer was second in points.
Martin Truex Jr. was 13th but still in the running for a position in the Chase.
There was more, much more. The team was positioned for success beyond a single season. It had sponsors with deep pockets, such as NAPA and Aaron’s and Nationwide champion Brian Vickers was scheduled to be part of its stable on a regular basis in 2014.
But at Richmond it all came crumbling down. And it was done by MWR’s own hand.
Bowyer spun himself out to try to help Truex Jr. make the Chase. Vickers was ordered onto pit road late in the race by general manager Ty Norris, also in an attempt to help Truex Jr. make the “playoffs.”
What is particularly appalling in all of this is that the instructions for the attempt to deliberately alter the outcome of the race were transmitted via radio.
That was a curiously stupid tactic. Evidence was made readily available to NASCAR – and maybe any fan or media member that happened to monitor MWR.
After its investigation, NASCAR fined MWR $300,000 – a record amount – fined the drivers multiple points, put crew chiefs on probation and suspended Norris indefinitely.
Then NAPA did the unprecedented. It pulled its sponsorship two years before the end of its commitment
Make no mistake. That was a $16-$18 million blow to MWR. Unable to find new backing, it announced that it would reduce its fleet to two cars in 2014. Truex Jr. will be let go after the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami as will a reported 15 percent of the workforce.
Uncertain and anxious about his future, Truex Jr. has landed with Furniture Road Racing for 2014, the team for which Kurt Busch drove before his impending departure to SHR next season.
Make no mistake Truex Jr. is a very relieved man.
Meanwhile, Vickers has suffered a blood clot – yet another one – in his right calf that will sideline him for the rest of 2013. He intends to return for the 2014 season.
The able Elliott Sadler will replace Vickers for the remainder of this season.
MWR’s fortunes in the Chase have, well, gone nowhere. Bowyer, who has never admitted to any wrongdoing, finished 25th at Richmond after his “incident.”
He has finished among the top 10 only once since, a ninth at Chicagoland. He is eighth in points with no hope of winning the championship.
The times ahead may be difficult for MWR. The effects of the NAPA departure have already been felt and have clearly affected the structural reorganization of the team.
What’s obvious is that MWR is going to have to operate with less money and less talent as it moves along.
Will it be able to overcome? Well, fact is, it did so after 2007, when Toyota made its debut in the Daytona 500.
Before qualifying, it was discovered that the team had an illegal fuel additive that was placed in Waltrip’s tank. Among other punishments it was slapped with a $100,000 fine.
It was said Waltrip had to scramble to save his team, which he did after millionaire Rob Kauffman became a co-owner.
And together they have since done admirably – for the most part.
But what happens now?
It is obvious that MWR is no longer on the same financial footing with the other elite teams. It does not have the manpower it once did. And money equals speed.
Given that, MWR faces the distinct possibility of becoming a mid-pack team.
But then, however hard it may be, it can be overcome.
What is important to remember is that this is unique because of simple, basic fact:
MWR brought it all on itself.