In July 2013, FOXSports.com asked Michael Waltrip just how important it is to have his cars qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Waltrip, the founder and co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, was uncharacteristically blunt.
"Our business model doesn’t work without us making the Chase," Waltrip said. "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."
Asked if the difference between making the Chase and missing it is in the millions of dollars per car, Waltrip told FOXSports.com, "I would say it’s safe to say that because of the purse and sponsor incentives, but more than that, it’s about survival. You have to be a Chase team if you want to be here for the long haul."
J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, agreed with Waltrip.
"It’s very important. If consistently, you’re not in that Chase, if you’re not making a run for it, it would be hard to stay in business," said Gibbs.
Little did anyone know at the time that MWR would become embroiled in controversy during the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season at Richmond International Raceway, where the teams will race again on Saturday night.
A year ago, NASCAR determined that MWR drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, team executive Ty Norris and others conspired to alter the outcome of the Richmond race so Martin Truex Jr. could get his MWR car into the Chase. Bowyer infamously spun out to bring out a late-race caution, and both he and Vickers pitted under green in the final laps to allow Truex a better finishing position.
Fewer than 48 hours after the race, NASCAR concluded that MWR was guilty of trying to rig the finish and levied heavy penalties against the team, including knocking Truex out of the Chase.
"What we’re going to do is we’re going to protect — no matter what it takes, the integrity of the sport will never be in question, and that’s what we’re going to make sure, that we have the right rules going forward that are clear so that the integrity of the competitive landscape of the events are not altered in a way or manipulated," said NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, who was furious after the Richmond fiasco.
NAPA Auto Parts, which sources told FOXSports.com was paying MWR $14.4 million annually to sponsor Truex’s car, pulled out of its deal with MWR afterward and the team had to shut down the No. 56 car and lay off an unspecified number of employees as a result.
Now, a year later, MWR is heading back to Richmond. The team has not won a race in the last year, with Bowyer winless in his last 66 starts and Vickers zero for his last 34. The only way Vickers can qualify for the Chase Saturday night is to win; Bowyer’s best chance by far is to win, too. In theory, he could make it in on points, if there were an extraordinary set of circumstances — he’d have to finish 24 points ahead of Greg Biffle and hope there wasn’t a first-time race-winner. That’s possible, but unlikely.
Although Bowyer has two of his eight career victories at RIR, in his last two races here, he finished 43rd and 25th. Vickers has never even finished in the top five here. In 17 starts at RIR, Vickers has finished 24th or worse 11 times.
The odds do not favor MWR, but strange things have happened at Richmond before. Just like they did last year.
And everyone knows what’s at stake.
"The Chase makes your season," Bowyer said last summer. "Competing for a championship for your team, for your sponsors more than anything –they want their car to be in that Chase because that’s where all the limelight is. The pressure is unbelievable when you’re on that hinge of making it or not making it. It’s not a good feeling that I’d wish upon anybody. That’s what makes the Chase so prestigious."
As for narrowly missing the Chase, as Bowyer did in 2011, that’s no fun.
"It sucks not getting in," Bowyer said. "It’s so difficult, you and your team work so hard — that makes your season."
VIDEO: The lasting impact of the Michael Waltrip Racing scandal