Opinion: Michael Waltrip Racing – On the Outside Looking In

Photo Credit: Noel Lanier/OnPitRoad

We all know the story. One year ago at Richmond International Raceway, in what was arguably one of the most controversial events in the history of NASCAR, Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) received a huge black eye and gave the sport a huge black eye, when his driver, Clint Bowyer, spun his No. 15 Toyota Camry to bring out a caution and help a teammate earn a spot in The Chase.

That move was compounded when another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, was directed down pit road for no reason other than to, again, help a teammate earn a spot in the exclusive post-season.

The sanctioning body immediately launched an investigation and found that there was significant evidence to penalize the organization.

Due to the team’s actions, driver Martin Truex Jr, the beneficiary of these actions, was removed from the Chase field. Though costly, that was the least of what the team would lose.

In the backlash, the fan base was polarized. The majority of which seemed to be upset with the team. There were, however, a large percentage who supported the team. Of course, there was also the group of fans who always complain about ANY decision NASCAR makes. That group immediately jumped on the “bash NASCAR” bandwagon for removing Truex from the Chase field.

One of the team’s major sponsors, NAPA, was inundated with negative publicity from fans claiming they would not support the company if it continued to support MWR. There was enough outcry to cause the auto part company, who had supported NASCAR teams for many years, to decide that they would no longer sponsor MWR, thus ending a twelve year relationship with Michael Waltrip.

Shortly after the NAPA announcement, Martin Truex Jr., who ironically, as far as we know, had no knowledge of, nor participated in, the events that led to the turmoil, was told he was free to look for other opportunities outside of MWR. MWR then announced it would reduce from three to two teams in 2014.

The MWR team had seemingly taken the proverbial “next step” and was becoming very competitive every week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. They were close to becoming one of the top-tier teams in the sport.

Fast forward to one year later – The team has struggled in 2014. MWR has not visited victory lane this season, a feat which would have almost automatically earned them a spot in the Chase. In 2013, Bowyer had an average finish of 11.9 and ended the season with ten top-five finishes. To date in 2014, Bowyer has an average finish of 15.7 and only four top-fives. There was also a significant difference in laps led, 75 so far in 2014, compared to 354 in all of 2013.

Perhaps a more telling indicator, however, is points position. Bowyer was in the top-ten of the standings in all but two of the series 36 races last year. Many of that time spent in second place. 2014 is completely different. Bowyer didn’t reach the top-ten until after the race at New Hampshire, the 19th race of the season. To be fair, the team’s performance has improved in the recent events, it was not enough, however, to make the coveted Chase.

Vickers performance is lacking as well. He scored a victory for the team on 2013 in a part-time effort (17 starts). To date in 2014, he has only seven top-tens, and prior the the points reset after Richmond, was 18th in the series standings.

Obviously, there are many contributing factors to the performance of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team. There is no conceivable way to quantify the variables that lead to the results on the track for any team. It is fair to say, however, that due to the decisions of the team one year ago, MWR lost a huge amount of funding from a major corporate partner, key personnel including a winning driver and crew members, and the added information source that having a third team provided.

The team, and even more specifically, owner Michael Waltrip, in this writer’s opinion, has also lost the respect of many entities related to the sport. Whether it be fans, potential sponsors, or fellow competitors. The fact that MWR could not secure funding for a third team or even completely fund the primary car driven by Bowyer, is an indicator that its position in the market place has weakened.

Those fateful decisions on a Saturday night at Richmond one year ago, have cost this team much more than a few points and a spot in the Chase, I believe we are still seeing and will continue to see the effects. The question is – can they overcome the hurdles they have created for themselves? Only time will tell.

As for 2014, Michael Waltrip and his team are left on the outside looking in.

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