Michael Waltrip adopted his manufacturer’s old slogan “moving forward” as the theme for Friday morning’s meeting with the media, following this week’s announcement that team sponsor NAPA would part ways with the No. 56 MWR Toyota at the end of this season.
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NAPA’s Thursday decision came 11 days after the debacle at Richmond International Raceway, where Clint Bowyer’s spin and Brian Vickers’ blatantly orchestrated pit stop changed the outcome of the race, the composition of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and the future of the sport.
Two days after the race, NASCAR tried to set matters right by issuing a 50-point penalty to each of the three Michael Waltrip teams, effectively knocking the No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase.
Waltrip is remorseful but still insists Bowyer’s spin was unintentional. He reiterated Friday, “We didn’t have a master plan to manipulate the race.” Waltrip also acknowledged that the organization is working to regain trust after the company “made a mistake in the heat of the battle.”
Certainly, Waltrip has support from a large fan base, but there’s also a widespread perception that, denials or not, he and his organization are guilty of trying to game the system. Waltrip hopes to change that.
“Do they want an arm? What are they looking for?” Waltrip asked. “I just hope we can put it behind us.”
Although Waltrip said he was scared and uncertain about the future of MWR following the incident, he believes NAPA’s decision to remain with the company through the end of the year and then leave was fair. With the support of his remaining sponsors and partner Rob Kauffman, Waltrip hopes to rebound from the indiscretion.
“No matter what happens in life or in sport, you learn from it and you become stronger and you become better,” Waltrip said. “I think our organization has learned a great deal about going forward and being a stronger team. I look forward to watching us grow from this unfortunate incident.”
Waltrip is choosing not to dwell on NASCAR’s sanctions, which included a $300,000 fine and the indefinite suspension of MWR general manager Ty Norris. If he’s learned a lesson from the ordeal, it’s understanding “what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.”
“As long as we know the rules and everyone plays by them and we’re all governed the same,” Waltrip said. “Then we’ll say we learned a lot from this situation, and we’ll be better prepared to race forward.”
For now, it’s uncertain whether Truex Jr. will be part of the equation. Waltrip says he owes Truex a lot and won’t hold him back from seeking employment elsewhere. But Waltrip would prefer that Truex remain with the team in an effort to attract sponsorship for the future. Waltrip isn’t certain of NAPA’s plans, and neither Truex nor the sponsor was available for comment on Friday morning.
However, sources familiar with the situation said if NAPA remains in the sport it will likely continue to support Truex, who was not culpable for MWR’s actions in “Spingate.”
One possible scenario for the duo could be a fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing. Though calls to team president J.D. Gibbs were not returned, he has said repeatedly that if the right opportunity comes along, JGR could expand to a four-car operation. A move to JGR would also keep the NAPA sponsorship in the Toyota fold.
In a perfect situation, however, MWR would soldier on with three fully funded teams. Waltrip said on Friday the possibility exists for Kauffman to sponsor the No. 56 Toyota with his RK Motors classic cars. RKM has sponsored Bowyer for four races this season; Toyota has been on the hood of Bowyer’s car for three races.
Waltrip doesn’t know what the eventual impact from his team’s actions will be, but he intends to run three “quality Chase teams with three great drivers” in 2014. He says he’s also open to varying that plan if need be — but doesn’t want to.
“We’ve always been sort of an underdog team, and we’ll just continue to fight and scratch to get through this,” Waltrip said.