Is There a Silver Lining in Michael Waltrip Racing Scaling Back for 2014?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2013

Being forced to scale back in 2014 may be the best thing for Michael Waltrip and his racing organization in light of last month's scandal at Richmond.
Being forced to scale back in 2014 may be the best thing for Michael Waltrip and his racing organization in light of last month's scandal at Richmond.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Losing an entire race team and letting go its driver, crew chief and several dozen employees is never easy.

But that's the position Michael Waltrip Racing finds itself in for 2014, as Martin Truex Jr. and the rest of the No. 56 team will likely become free agents at the end of this season.

Not by choice, I might add.

The reason Truex and Co. will not be back next season is no surprise: NAPA is ending its sponsorship of Truex's team due to the cheating scandal at Richmond last month in the final qualifying race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In hindsight, Truex being disqualified from the Chase and the record $300,000 fine MWR was forced to pay was the least of the company's worries.

But when NAPA chose to end its sponsorship, not wanting the bad publicity and indirect affiliation that comes with a cheating team, it didn't leave MWR many choices.

So Truex and the rest of his squad are out looking for jobs with other teams for 2014.

One has to wonder, how or if MWR will survive when its reputation was severely tainted for the second time in seven years. The first time was one of the most egregious offenses—until the Richmond incident last month, that is—in NASCAR history, when a jet fuel-like substance was found in the carburetors of two MWR cars.

Yes, MWR can and likely will survive. But it's an organization that will forever be changed going forward.

Fortunately, its other two key sponsors, Aaron's and 5-Hour Energy, have chosen not to follow NAPA out the MWR corporate door. That will allow the organization to continue fielding teams for Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers next season and potentially for several more years to come.

Where Truex will wind up is anyone's guess. A good possibility may be Furniture Row Racing, which is still looking for a replacement for when Kurt Busch leaves at season's end en route to his new home at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Truex and his entire team didn't have to go anywhere, but at this late stage of the season, it's next to impossible to find a major sponsor that is willing to pay anywhere between $15 and $25 million to replace NAPA on the front and side of the No. 56 Toyota.

Ergo, so long No. 56 team, Truex and pretty much everyone else associated with it.

But going back to the silver lining aspect, yes, there still is one even with all the embarrassment and ignominy that the entire MWR organization has had to endure.

First and foremost, MWR will be back racing next season. Even though it has had to scale back to two teams rather than the expected three, those two teams could eventually become more united and stronger than a three-car effort.

Second, there's no question that NASCAR and its officials will be watching MWR like a hawk in 2014, perhaps more closely than any team has ever been watched after incurring the sanctioning body's wrath, not to mention the damage it did trying to game the system and essentially rig the outcome of the Richmond race.

Third, Aaron's and 5-Hour Energy will help pay for most of the bills of the two remaining teams. As sad as it is to cut an entire team and all its employees loose, at least MWR will remain in the game.

Fourth, hopefully MWR has learned a very valuable lesson out of all this. It certainly seemed to learn a lesson after the 2007 alleged jet-fuel incident and went on to become one of the premier, clean and above-board teams in the sport.

Until Richmond, that is.

Martin Truex Jr. and NAPA will both soon be gone from Michael Waltrip Racing.
Martin Truex Jr. and NAPA will both soon be gone from Michael Waltrip Racing.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Now it'll have to start from scratch to rebuild its reputation and legitimacy.

It's sad how Bowyer, who finished runner-up in last year's championship, has struggled in this year's edition. It's pretty clear he's feeling the strain and pressure of what his organization did, not to mention the hundreds of eyeballs from NASCAR officials to members of other teams, just looking for one intentional infraction.

That's a hell of a lot of pressure to deal with, especially when you're behind the wheel.

And earlier this week, MWR lost Vickers for the remainder of the season due to a recurrence of blood clotting issues that sidelined him for more than two-thirds of the season back in 2010. While it's believed Vickers will be back and healthy for 2014, it's likely that team owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman are looking ahead with some type of contingency program, just in case Vickers doesn't return.

Still, one way or other, there will be a No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine team in 2014, with or without Vickers.

Speaking of Kauffman, will he stick around and continue to be the silent money man of the whole operation? Or will he decide to exit a tainted organization and perhaps strike out on his own to start his own race team?

If that were to happen, MWR might sink to maybe only a one-car team. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.

Admittedly, it's going to take a lot—and a very long time—for MWR to regain the trust and respect of not only NASCAR officials, fellow drivers and teams, but also more importantly, fans.

In a way, that's a good thing, though. Because if there's one way to prove you've repented for your mistakes, it's to run as clean a ship as possible to keep yourself above reproach.

You want to become a sterling example of how things are done right and that you don't have to cheat or game the system to get ahead.

I'm not saying it's going to be easy, and it will definitely take probably two to three seasons before MWR regains much of the respect and class it lost at Richmond, but it can be done.

Right now, MWR needs time. In a sport that it likely lost a lot of friends after Richmond, time may be the only friend MWR has for quite awhile.

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