By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- Michael Waltrip Racing would like to keep Martin Truex Jr.
For his part, Truex wouldn't mind staying with the organization.
But the economic realities of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing may force Truex to find a ride with another team next year.
The last two weeks have been brutal for the driver of the No. 56 Toyota. On Sept. 9, two days after locking up a spot in the Chase, Truex lost his berth in NASCAR's 10-race playoff when the sanctioning body penalized him and MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers for the organization's manipulation of the outcome of the final regular-season race at Richmond.
On Thursday morning, Truex lost his primary sponsor and the estimated $16 million in annual support for his car. NAPA announced on a Facebook posting that the auto parts retailer was opting out of its three-year contract with MWR because of the machinations at Richmond and subsequent negative fallout.
Truex may have been the object of the manipulation -- a spin by Bowyer and unnecessary pit stop by Vickers temporarily earned Truex a Wild Card Chase spot -- but he wasn't party to the orchestration of events that led to a record $300,000 fine to MWR and NAPA's subsequent departure.
In fact, Truex and his Cup program have borne the brunt of the consequences to the organization and left the 33-year-old driver with no concrete deal for next year.
Does Truex feel he's a victim?
"Yes," Truex replied Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after turning a qualifying lap that was good for the fifth starting spot in Sunday's Sylvania 300. "What else can I say -- yeah."
Truex, however, may have solid options. He has a strong relationship with NAPA, who might move with him to another team.
"We do have a great relationship and, again, this has all happened so fast -- obviously, they're going to need a little time for the dust to settle and figure out what their next move is," Truex said of his sponsor. "Just have to wait.
"I guess it's an option, yeah. I feel like we've got a great relationship. I feel like I've represented them well, and I know they're happy with the job I've done on and off the race track. We'll just see where that leads. But right now, honestly, I have no idea what's going to happen."
With Chase driver Kurt Busch departing for Stewart-Haas in 2014, Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing needs a driver. Furniture Row, a single-car Chevrolet team, has had discussions with Toyota this year but was told there currently was no room in the Toyota stable for another organization.
That was before the Waltrip imbroglio. Furniture Row hasn't re-signed with Chevy yet, though the team has renewed its deal for engines and technical support with Richard Childress Racing, which fields Chevrolets.
Consequently, a Truex move to Furniture Row with NAPA sponsorship, perhaps in a second car and perhaps with a manufacturer change, would be a complicated proposition -- though not impossible.
Whatever he does, the two-time Nationwide Series champion knows time is short.
"I wish I knew, and I wish I could say, but a lot of circumstances have to play out, and it's so late in the game and late in the season," said Truex, who was fifth fastest in Saturday morning's first practice session. "People already know what they're doing next year. This is definitely not the time of year you want to find out that you really don't have a ride next year, so to speak.
"I don't know ... it's going to be tough, but we'll have to deal with it, and hopefully we'll figure it out."
The consensus among Cup drivers is that the tweak to the restart rules introduced for the first Chase race last Sunday at Chicagoland has made a potentially gnarly situation less complicated.
After the leader of the race, who controls the restart, picks up the pace in the restart zone, the flagman waves the green, and drivers begin racing without changing lanes until they reach the start/finish line. No longer does the lead car have to reach the stripe first -- a requirement before the change made last Sunday.
Accordingly, NASCAR no longer has to make a judgment call as to whether the lead driver spins his tires, misses a shift or has another issues that would excuse the second-place car from getting to the line first. The rule change also makes it less likely for the second-place car to stack up its line trying to stay behind the leader.
"I think NASCAR did a good job by simplifying the restart rules," Carl Edwards said. "I think it makes it easier, because the leader gets to start, and after that it's a race. That's probably the simplest way to do it with the double-file restart."
The restart rule won't concern Edwards on Sunday -- at least not early in the Sylvania 300. The driver of the No. 99 Fordo qualified 26th, deepest in the field among Chase competitors.
"For me, I'll have to get to the front row to worry about it," Edwards said wryly. "We've got a long ways to go here."
RAY OF HOPE
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is winless in his last 46 Sprint Cup starts. Last Sunday, his first race in the Chase ended with an engine failure.
Earnhardt is 13th of 13 drivers in the Chase standings, 53 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. Barring a miracle, he's effectively out of the running for the series championship.
New Hampshire, however, may be his saving grace, based on Saturday morning's Cup practice. In the first session, Earnhardt posted the second fastest lap at 132.406 mph, bettered only by Clint Bowyer's 132.688 mph. In Happy Hour, NASCAR's most popular driver topped the speed chart at 133.059 mph.
Earnhardt also had the fastest 10-lap average (131.627 mph) among 25 drivers who ran 10 or more consecutive laps in the first session. Yes, there's a big difference between practice and the race itself, but that bodes well for Sunday's Sylvania 300.