Last year at this time, heading into the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season at Richmond International Raceway, the future for Michael Waltrip Racing looked bright and certain.
Now it appears MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip has a better chance of winning Dancing with the Stars than either of his organization's two full-time drivers do of coming out on top in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That, of course, is a huge concern for Waltrip, who admitted recently that his company is built with everything gearing toward winning races and making the Chase. This year they are in danger of accomplishing neither as they prepare for a return to Richmond this weekend.
"Our business model doesn't work without us making the Chase," Waltrip told FoxSports.com. "We invest in our cars and our team and we tell our sponsors that with the way we built our team, we're going to make the Chase, we're going to win races."
Will Michael Waltrip Racing get a team in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup?
It begs the question: Will MWR ever fully recover from the controversial "SpinGate" debacle at the last fall Richmond race?
The true answer to that question is that now, a full year later, it's really still too soon to tell and the road ahead remains rocky and uncertain.
Certainly they didn't bounce right back this season, but no one really expected that. There was too much damage, too much long-lasting radioactive fallout from what transpired a year ago to expect a quick recovery.
To recap, last year MWR fielded a total of three full-time entries in the Sprint Cup Series—the No. 15 Toyota driven by Clint Bowyer, the No. 56 driven by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 55 that was entered in all the Cup races but was driven in 2013 by the foursome of Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler and Michael Waltrip himself.
Oddly enough, Bowyer hadn't won any races heading into Richmond in fall of 2013, but he was in better shape than Truex, who had won once, in terms of points needed to qualify for a spot in what was then a 12-driver Chase. The other MWR car, despite also having reached Victory Lane once with Vickers behind the wheel, did not have a full-time driver and therefore none of them were eligible for the Chase.
So it was that Bowyer then spun under highly suspicious circumstances in the closing laps with Ryan Newman leading the race at RIR, bringing out the caution that, at least temporarily, helped Truex get into the Chase as a "wild-card entry." Vickers also aided the Truex effort by mysteriously pitting under green per the orders of MWR president Ty Norris with just three laps to go.
Within 48 hours, NASCAR ruled that Newman, who ended up losing the race almost certainly because of the late caution caused by Bowyer, would be in the Chase and that Truex was out. NASCAR also later ruled that Jeff Gordon, another apparent victim of the debacle when Vickers' late pit seemingly left him out of the Chase, was being added to the playoff as an unprecedented 13th participant.
But that was only the beginning of the fallout damage done by what came to be known as SpinGate.
Truex, who thought his future with MWR not only was secure but was on the rise, ultimately was left without a ride with the team when his primary sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, bailed on the remainder of its three-year sponsorship.
He ultimately ended up in a lesser ride with Furniture Row Racing, and he has had a terrible 2014 season.
MWR went from expecting to field three full-time teams that would have competed for the Sprint Cup championship to only two, and they haven't been all that competitive. Unless either Bowyer or Vickers can win this Saturday night at Richmond, they both could be left out of the Chase (although Bowyer still has a chance to also qualify in on points).
Neither Bowyer nor Vickers has won a race this season, and they have combined to lead a total of only 113 laps while registering the combined total of six top-five finishes (three each) and 17 top-10 finishes (10 for Bowyer and seven for Vickers).
Compare that to last year when the three MWR cars combined for two wins, 22 top-five finishes and 44 top-10 finishes while leading a total of 830 laps, and you can see clearly how dramatically the organization has fallen off.
No wonder MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman is leading the charge for the newly formed Race Team Alliance that essentially is a union of owners. He knows if he doesn't cut costs, MWR might not survive long without regaining some of the sponsorship it has lost and the technical advantage it had to give up by laying off 15 percent of its workforce after SpinGate (per the Associated Press via GoDanRiver.com.)
Essentially, in that one moment that Bowyer allegedly spun (he's never really admitted it, nor has he continued to deny it), the whole immediate future of MWR was altered in a huge way—and not for the better.
There are many interesting subplots swirling around this Saturday night's Richmond repeat. Of them, none is more intriguing than the one surrounding Bowyer. He comes into this race fourth in points among drivers without wins—and only three of them are going to get into the Chase if there isn't another first-time 2014 winner. As the one man who will be watched perhaps more closely than all others (with Tony Stewart a close second), Bowyer is going to have no choice but to put the hammer down and try to get to the front early and stay there.
Meanwhile, the same guy who almost got screwed by Bowyer's alleged scheme last year, Newman, needs a strong run to secure a spot in the Chase too. That alone is a recipe for must-watch television.
A win by Bowyer would make certain MWR is represented in the Chase and would go a long way toward perhaps putting the organization back on the right path. Jeff Hammond, television analyst for Fox Sports and columnist for FoxSports.com, wrote that he likes Bowyer's chances: "If I have to pick one driver to get that last position, then I am going to go with Clint Bowyer to unseat Greg Biffle simply because of Clint's continued success at Richmond."
If only it were that simple.
The truth of the matter is that a Bowyer win seems unlikely now on the track where he usually excels. Knowing that NASCAR is watching him closely, it's doubtful Bowyer will be able to come down on the right side of that fine line between racing everybody clean and being aggressive enough to get to the front and stay there on a short track and in a race that demands unabashed aggressiveness. Plus, he just hasn't been able to run up front much this season—a common problem for all the Toyota teams.
And even if Bowyer does win, will it be enough to say MWR is back on the right track?
Not really. It would be a big step in the right direction, but true redemption for this organization appears to be years away and elusive at that.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.