They were on the threshold of becoming an elite team in NASCAR, joining the sport's ruling class alongside Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing. Only five weeks ago, on the eve of the regular season finale at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway, Michael Waltrip Racing appeared to have the talent, the resources, and the pure speed to contend for a championship in 2013.
As the drivers climbed into their cars on that warm September Saturday night, Clint Bowyer was second in the points standings. Martin Truex, Jr. was 13th and had still had a shot at qualifying for the Chase. What's more, the team seemed well positioned for long-term success. MWR had deep-pocketed sponsors such as NAPA and Aaron's locked into long-term contracts and the organization was adding a third fulltime driver, Brian Vickers, a former Nationwide champion, to its stable for 2014.
But since that night in Richmond, it's fair to say hat no team in NASCAR during the last decade has had a worse run than MWR. First, at Richmond, Bowyer spun himself out to try to help Truex make the Chase. Then Vickers, who was piloting the No. 55 Toyota, was ordered onto pit road late by the team's general manager, Ty Norris, in another blatant attempt to try to manipulate the race so that Truex would advance to the playoffs.
After a NASCAR investigation, MWR was fined $300,000 -- the biggest fine in the sport's history -- and then NAPA pulled the plug on its sponsorship agreement two years early. Unable to find a new major sponsor, MWR announced on Monday that it would only run two cars in 2014 with Bowyer and Vickers (who will miss the rest of the season with a blood clot, but he says he'll be ready for Daytona in February). Truex will be let go after the final race of 2013 at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- as will 15 percent of the team's workforce.
All of this turmoil has clearly had an impact on Bowyer and his quest for his first championship. After compiling eight top-five finishes during the regular season, he has been an afterthought in the Chase. In five playoff races, he hasn't finished higher than ninth and is currently eighth in the standings. He appears tentative behind the wheel and doesn't seem to have the power under the hood that he possessed earlier in the season. After displaying so much promise for seven months, Bowyer essentially has already been eliminated from title contention.
So now the question becomes: Where does Michael Waltrip Racing go from here? An old saw in motorsports holds that money equals speed. With the departure of NAPA and its reported $18 million annual commitment to MWR, Waltrip lost about a third of its income. NAPA's decision to leave was a stunning one, given that Michael Waltrip had become the face of their company over the last few years through its commercials. But clearly NAPA didn't believe it was good business to be in bed with a perceived cheater, and so it cut ties with MWR.
And it's this perception of cheating that will haunt this team for the foreseeable future. Waltrip's organization has long been known in the garage for its creative manipulations of the rules, dating back to Toyota's debut in NASCAR in the 2007 Daytona 500. Before qualifying, NASCAR found that an illegal fuel additive -- it was incorrectly described by some as "rocket fuel" -- had been put into Waltrip's tank. NASCAR hit him with such a big fine ($100,000, which now seems small compared to the recent levy) that it left Waltrip on the brink of bankruptcy before millionaire Rob Kauffman joined the team as a co-owner.
Once the scent of a scandal has enveloped a team, it's a hard thing to fumigate. Waltrip has done it before -- he survived in '07 to build what was an emerging racing empire in his headquarters in Cornelius, N.C. -- but this time is different.
Will Michael Waltrip Racing ever be the same? No. Will it ever seriously contend for a Sprint Cup championship? It's possible. A two-car team, Penske Racing, did win the title in 2012, but it is highly unlikely that MWR will have the resources that Penske enjoys any time soon.
Yes, in motorsports money equals speed. And without an abundance of cash, do you know what you are in NASCAR? A mid-pack team.