By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- Team owner Michael Waltrip intends to field three Sprint Cup cars next year, but with NAPA pulling its sponsorship from the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota at season's end, driver Martin Truex Jr. can explore other opportunities, Waltrip said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"We asked if we could have a little bit of time to figure this out, and he (Truex) agreed to that," Waltrip said during an interview session behind the No. 56 transporter. "If he came to me tomorrow and said, 'I've got a deal to go do something,' then obviously I would not hold him back. His support and loyalty to our organization has been amazing.
"He drove some kind of crappy cars when he first got to our shop, and we were able to build those cars better, make 'em faster, and he's been able to be a race-winning Chase guy. So I owe him a lot for his loyalty and his passion for our team. I wouldn't hold him back from doing something he wanted to do, but what I would like him to do is hang around so we can attract a sponsor and keep him in our car."
NAPA announced in a Facebook post Thursday morning that the auto parts retailer would opt out of its three-year sponsorship deal with Waltrip, effective at the end of the year. Discomfort with MWR's attempted manipulation of the outcome of the final regular-season race at Richmond -- which drew a record fine from NASCAR and ultimately cost Truex a spot in the Chase -- led to NAPA's exercising an escape clause in the contract.
With seven laps left in the Sept. 6 Federated Auto Parts 400, MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun off Turn 4, bringing out a caution that radically changed the race. Ryan Newman, who had been leading at the time -- and who would have sewn up a Chase spot with a win -- ultimately finished third, losing the second wild card berth to Truex.
Both Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers came to pit road after a restart with three laps left, ensuring they would finish behind Joey Logano, who consequently clinched 10th place and Knocked Jeff Gordon out of the Chase.
On Sept. 8, NASCAR penalized all three MWR drivers, dropping Truex out of the Chase, and fined the organization $300,000. As a result, Newman got the final wild card spot. After attempted collusion between Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing, designed to help Logano secure a Chase spot, came to light later in the week, NASCAR added Gordon to the Chase as a 13th driver.
The cost to MWR goes far beyond the loss of a Chase spot. NAPA's sponsorship is worth an estimated $16 million annually.
The news, however, isn't all bad. Aaron's, which sponsors Vickers' No. 55 car, has expressed its support for the organization, and Waltrip said Friday he expects Bowyer's primary sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, to remain on board.
Waltrip also raised the prospect of sponsorship for Truex through RK Motors, the classic car business owned by his partner in MWR, Rob Kauffman, who acknowledged Friday on Twitter that he had discussed that possibility with Waltrip.
"Obviously, it's been a rocky couple of weeks, and, yes, I was scared, and I was uncertain of our future," Waltrip acknowledged. "But after speaking with the folks from Aaron's and speaking with all of our partners, they're supporting us.
"They're going to stick with us and believe that we are a quality, first-class organization. We will race forward with respect and appreciation for being able to be here and start to gain back trust."
That could be a tall hurdle for Waltrip, who continued to assert on Friday that Bowyer's spin wasn't intentional, despite a preponderance of opinion among fellow drivers and fans that it was.
"I've said it repeatedly -- there was no master plan to manipulate the race," Waltrip said. "That was never discussed or brought up. Do they want an arm? What are they looking for? I hope that we can put it behind us. Clint did not spin on purpose, and I stand behind him."
NAPA's announcement of the departure from MWR also indicated the company was evaluating its position in NASCAR racing as a whole. That could mean a total withdrawal from the sport. It could also mean accompanying Truex to a new team, despite Waltrip's hopes to keep the driver in his fold.
"We're just full set on having three quality Chase teams with great drivers," Waltrip said. "That's the reality. If we have to vary from that plan, we're prepared to do that as well. Going from two (cars) to three is a little hard and going from three to two is just a little disappointing.
"But we don't plan on doing that."
THE COST OF CHANGING JOBS
Vickers won at New Hampshire in July with crew chief Rodney Childers on his pit box, but Childers subsequently announced plans to accept an offer from Stewart-Haas Racing to fill the crew chief role for Kevin Harvick next year.
Childers is still under contract to MWR, which, understandably, wants to isolate the soon-to-be-former crew chief from the team's proprietary information. While he's in limbo, Childress can't work for Stewart-Haas, and he can't come to the track as part of the Waltrip organization.
It not hard to tell, however, that Childers misses the action.
"Sure wish I was at the race track today @NHMS," was Childers plaintive Friday posting on his Twitter account. "Miss being there and would like to have tried to defend the win from earlier this year."
NOTHING TO LOSE
You could argue that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano have nothing to lose in this year's Chase because they've already lost it.
Both Earnhardt and Logano suffered engine failures last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, and their early exits from the first Chase race cost them dearly in the standings. Earnhardt is 53 points behind Chase leader Matt Kenseth, and Logano trails by 52 points.
That sort of ill fortune, says Jeff Gordon, can change your perspective on the Chase. He should know. In last year's Chicagoland race, Gordon's throttle stuck, and he pounded the outside wall -- effectively dashing his hopes for a fifth Sprint Cup title.
"Instead of maybe having a game plan where you were going to try to fine tune a set-up, you can just go completely outside the box and just go for broke and make very gutsy calls on pit road," Gordon said Friday before opening Cup practice for Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire. "You can be more aggressive as a driver. The engineers can be more aggressive in the set-up as well. ...
"I think that they are looking at it like 'Listen, unless something miraculous happens, we are not going to be back in this thing,' to the level that they would like to be. I think there is a part of you that just says ' 'K, let's just see how high up in points we can get,' and there is a part of you that says, 'We go for broke, and if we get on a heck of a roll, we can still do this'.
"You certainly never stop giving up hope."