Michael Waltrip Racing bids goodbye to NASCAR with Homestead finale – USA TODAY
HOMESTEAD, Fla. âÂ Clint Bowyer sniffled and his eyes blinked in discomfort as reflected on the final days of Michael Waltrip Racing.
It wasnât emotion. His sinuses, he said,Â after stepping back to a group of reporters in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, were âjacked.â
Thatâs not to say Bowyer wasnât saddened as his Chase for the Sprint Cup-qualifying race team and what little was left of the organization prepared to compete in its final Sprint Cup race. He was sympathetic for those within the organization and Michael Waltrip, whose fortunes in business had not been as gilded as on the track, where he won the fabled Daytona 500 twice. But at the same time, Bowyer couldnât help but gaze toward his future and finally moving on.
âHell, yes,â he said, when asked if his mind had wondered to his 2016 joining of HScott Motorsports. âAnd thatâs been the struggle. Getting in the Chase, I knew it was probably going to be a tough task to keep the group together and compete for a championship, but I was really impressed with the way that everybody found out the news of their futures not being intact with MWR and still all the while they were working on trying to solidify what their futures looked like, they were digging hard to try and get us in that Chase and compete for a championship.
âAnd just as time goes, it just slowly starts to come apart, so â¦ to be honest with you, Iâm looking forward to getting this chapter closed up and definitely looking to the future.â
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Michael Waltrip Racing currently has no such future. Its carcass has already been cannibalized. Bowyerâs No. 15 Toyota hauler will be driven from Homestead to his new HScott shop. The pit carts will go to Ganassi Racing.
âItâs sad, to be dead honest with you,â Bowyer said. âThe culture is better there than any place Iâve ever been and thatâs the crazy thing about it. Thereâs so many good people.â
Waltrip expressed his emotions in a rhapsodic series of Tweets on Friday, saying, âSunday it’ll be hard, but I’ll choose to smile. We were underdogs who nearly survived in a grown ups world.â
But the teamâs history was tumultuous and its actions self-defeating from the beginning in 2007 as Toyotaâs flagship for a launch into NASCARâs top series. Waltripâs race car was found to have used an illegal fuel additive during Daytona 500 preliminaries, incurring a 100-point penalty, ejection of crew chief David Hyder and executive Bobby Kennedy and $100,000 fine for Hyder.
In 2013, MWR was hammered for manipulating the finish of the regular-season final at Richmond International Raceway in an attempt to scheme Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. A curiously timed pit stop by Brian Vickers and a skeptically viewed spinout for a caution by Bowyer arranged the proper circumstances, but NASCAR removed Truex Jr. from the Chase and replaced him with Ryan Newman, suspended general manager Ty Norris, placed all three crew chiefs on probation and fined the team $300,000. In the public perception fallout that followed, long-time sponsor NAPA bolted, forcing MWR to dissolve Truexâs No. 56 Toyota program, reduce workforce by 15 percent and the team to two full-time programs.
Bowyer said the teamâs problems couldnât be traced solely to the Richmond incident, citing an organizational tendency in which âit seemed like every time weâd get one foot forward, weâd take two steps backward and sometimes it was our fault and sometimes it wasnât.â
âItâs so many things,â he said. âEven before (Richmond), there was a lot of tough things and NAPA was one of those things. Sponsorship is such a big thing in this sport. It seemed like we were always fighting to try to keep sponsors and keep teams alive and itâs just a struggle. Itâs hard to make it in this world and you canât do it without sponsorship and certainly Richmond wasnât a good thing, but that wasnât the only thing.â
There were seemingly always crisis. Among them, Vickers was forced from the No. 55 Toyota on multiple occasions because of cardiovascular problems.
Team co-owner Rob Kauffman, whose 2007 investment saved the financially failing team, announced this summer that he would divest to purchase stakes in Chip Ganassi Racing, leaving Michael Waltrip with an untenable situation. Kauffman told USA TODAY Sports Friday that his deal with Ganassi is complete, with closing set for the end of the year. All but about 50 of the teamâs 200 employees have been laid off and its shop floor has become a macabre yard sale of sorts, with representatives from other teams regularly perusing for bargains amid remaining machinery.
Bowyer, meanwhile will race a stop-gap season with HScott Motorsports before replacing retiring three-time series champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017.
Oddly, MWRâs demise, âD-Day,â as Bowyer dubbed it, coincides with Truex Jr.âs chance to transform a career catastrophe into the impetus for his greatest racing achievement. In 2014 he replaced Kurt Busch at a Furniture Row team that qualified for the Chase in 2013,Â and on Sunday,Â could become the beneficiary of the Richmond incident two years after the offense, with the chance to win a first Cup title.
âI got over it really quickly and I got over it quick and said, âLook, there’s things in life that you can’t control.Â Life’s not fairâ,â Truex Jr. said.Â âTo be honest with you, that wasn’t the end of the world.Â I knew it was going to be hard just because of the way the sport is to get that opportunity to be at a competitive team again.Â But I knew it wasn’t the end of the world.Â There was obviously a lot of things that could happen that are worse.
Now looking back, obviously even more to that point I understand that.Â But I did get over it fairly quickly and said, Hey, you know, stuff happens, we need to figure out how to move on, make the best of what happened, and wasÂ fortunate to land with a great team.â
As is Bowyer. For many of the other casualties of MWRâs collapse, there are only unknowns.
Follow James on Twitter @brantjames