Around NASCAR: How One Night at Richmond Killed Michael Waltrip Racing

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2015

Michael Waltrip's organization could not survive a controversy of its own making.
Michael Waltrip's organization could not survive a controversy of its own making.Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

Michael Waltrip no doubt can't come to Richmond International Raceway without thinking about the one night at RIR that killed Michael Waltrip Racing.

What had been speculated for months became reality last month when Rob Kauffman, the money behind the MWR operation for years, announced he was moving his pile of racing cash to Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

"Michael Waltrip Racing really wouldn't have existed through to today without a significant and continued financial support from me," Kauffman told reporters recently,according to Fox Sports.

"I think that just from a business standpoint, that didn't make sense any longer. You can't have a top-10 budget and top-10 resources and not be in the top 10 for a sustained period of time. This is a performance-related business, and it's all about performance.

"It's a great sport, but a very difficult business model," added Kauffman, who first propped up a financially strapped MWR in October 2007, only 10 months into its first year of operation. "From a business decision, it just made sense to not go forward with that organization because it just wasn't commercially viable."

Now comes the hard part. MWR filed notice Sept. 1 with the state of North Carolina that it intends to permanently lay off 217 employees from its race shop located in Cornelius, North Carolina, on the outskirts of Charlotte. Some reportedly will be shown the door as early as Nov. 1, according to Fox Sports' Tom Jensen.

The beginning of the end, as it were, for MWR, goes back to Richmond and the ill-fated night of Sept. 7, 2013.

One MWR driver, Clint Bowyer, ahem, “allegedly” spun on purpose and a second MWR driver, Brian Vickers, complied with inexplicable team orders to pit with three laps left in the race in a thinly veiled attempt to help a third MWR driver, Martin Truex Jr., gain entry into what was then a 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field. It was foolish, and MWR ended up paying a heavy price for its tomfoolery.

NASCAR came down hard on the organization and rightly so, removing Truex from the Chase field and levying a $300,000 fine. It led to the loss of what one source told Bleacher Report was upward of $15 million annually on the final two years of a NAPA sponsorship contract, which led to a first round of layoffs and organizational reduction from three competitive cars to two mediocre ones.

Sadly, MWR never recovered.

Too many cautions make for long night in Darlington

There were a record 18 cautions in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington that eventually was won by Carl Edwards. That’s about eight too many and led to a race that was ridiculously long (just shy of four-and-a-half hours).

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said in a news conference immediately after the race that he was pleased with the racing action on the track and defended the length of the race.

“I look at it as, ‘Were the fans entertained?’ When I looked down (from the control tower) at Lap 10 and toward the end of the race, they were on their feet,” he said. “I think if you were to ask most race fans here (Saturday night) if they enjoyed four-and-a-half hours of racing action, I think they’d say yes.”

They also likely would have said about eight fewer cautions would have been better, and viewers watching at home on television no doubt would have enjoyed being able to go to bed 30-45 minutes earlier. Then again, an earlier start time might have helped that, too. There was no good reason to wait until 7:20 p.m. to throw the green flag.

Rumor mill

LONG POND, PA - AUGUST 03:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 RK Motors Charlotte Toyota, speaks with Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Code 3 / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 3, 2014 in
Elsa/Getty Images

One source well connected in the garage says there appears to be truth to the rumor that Bowyer will drive next season for HScott Motorsports while waiting for Tony Stewart to run one final season as driver of the No. 14 car at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Then Stewart, who has not been very competitive since suffering a series of unfortunate incidents away from the Sprint Cup circus, likely will retire, and Bowyer will move into Stewart’s vacated seat in 2017, the source said.

It makes sense and is reminiscent of the same scenario the unfolded for Kasey Kahne when he had to wait one year for his current No. 5 ride at Hendrick Motorsports to open up in 2012. Kahne left what was then Evernham-Gillett Motorsports toward the end of the 2010 season, driving the last five races of that year and the entire 2011 season for now-defunct Red Bull Racing before joining Hendrick.

Kevin Harvick's retro look at Darlington.
Kevin Harvick's retro look at Darlington.Terry Renna/Associated Press

Thumbs up

To NASCAR for the throwback theme it took to the limit for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 race weekend at Darlington Raceway. Not only did most of the retro cars look great, but the old-school firesuits worn by many of the pit crews were absolutely fantastic.

The best-looking retro car might have been Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Chevy. The only thing is, it wasn’t a replica of a past race car. It was a throwback paint scheme based on the first beer can primary sponsor Budweiser ever introduced back in 1951.

Hey, whatever works.

The beer throwback theme was popular, as Brad Keselowski's No. 2 Miller High Life Ford, a replica paint scheme popularized by NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison in the 1980s, also was sharp.

Danica Patrick's Saturday night ended early.
Danica Patrick's Saturday night ended early.Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

Thumbs down

Danica Patrick's No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing was billed as having a throwback scheme, but it really wasn't. It was just her regular car with more black on it than usual, a nod, supposedly, to the track nicknamed "The Lady in Black."

Then Patrick ended up wrecking out of the race early and finished next-to-last in the 43-car field, giving her 13 finishes of 21st or worse in her last 17 races. And for this she recently was rewarded with a contract extension?

In the fast lane

Overall, O’Donnell was correct in stating that much of the racing action, especially toward the end of the race, was entertaining. Darlington simply is a tough track to trot out a relatively new aerodynamic-tire package, causing even some of the most experienced drivers such Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch to lose control of their cars.

Roughly the same package that was used at Kentucky Speedway was used again (but with a different Goodyear tire combination), and won’t be seen again now until next year, O’Donnell added. ... It’s more likely than not that the 16 drivers now currently locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup field heading into the final regular-season race at Richmond will be the same 16 who make up the Chase field after RIR. There hasn’t been a new 2015 winner since Kyle Busch registered the first of his four race wins this season back in June at Sonoma, and that’s what it will take to shake up the Chase field. ... For fans traveling to Richmond, a trip there is never complete with a game of darts, some dinner and a few cold ones at Penny Lane Pub (and not necessarily in that order).


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 as well as assisting in coverage of NASCAR for FoxSports.com as a Digital Content Producer. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.