Murto: Fallout continues for MWR

Even as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were making history at New Hampshire as the first teammates to have consecutive one-two finishes in NASCAR’s Chase, most of the talk in the garage area centered on Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) and the continual fallout following the Richmond race three weeks ago.

By now you know that Clint Bowyer spun his 5-Hour Energy Toyota with seven laps remaining at Richmond. After the race restarted, recorded radio conversation between the team and its drivers indicated that the team manipulated the race in order to ensure Martin Truex Jr. a spot in the Chase. NASCAR penalized all MWR teams 50 points, suspended team VP Ty Norris, placed all the crew chiefs on probation and fined the team a record $300,000. But NASCAR claimed they could not prove that Bowyer spun his car on purpose, though Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who followed Bowyer on the track) indicated it was on purpose, and the in-car camera shots and audio made race-driving analysts claim the spin was intentional. The result of the penalties removed Truex from the Chase.

But later in the week, in an extraordinary move, NASCAR decided to allow Jeff Gordon to become the 13th car in what was supposed to be a 12-car Chase. Gordon was securely in the Chase before Bowyer’s car spun.

Prior to New Hampshire, NAPA Auto Parts announced that they no longer will sponsor MWR, as of Dec. 31, 2013, ending their contract two years early. Every contract has behavior, morality or ethics clauses, which undoubtedly NAPA cited. That’s $18 million annually that MWR will no longer see, and it makes it doubtful that they can field a car for Truex. NAPA said that it will evaluate its motorsports program at the end of the year.

One of the biggest rumors going around the New Hampshire garage was that Joe Gibbs Racing will field a fourth car in 2014 for Truex, with NAPA sponsorship. We’ll have to see on that one. If it’s not the case, it’s certainly a shame that the biggest loser in all of this is Truex, who appears to have known nothing about the shenanigans that went on at Richmond and did absolutely nothing wrong.

The message is obviously that teams should not embarrass sponsors. But when asked about the situation, Michael Waltrip insisted that Bowyer did not spin intentionally, even though that question was not directly asked. It seems to me that with the evidence available in the form of in-car video and audio, as well as the public opinion of people such as Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip would have been wise not to even mention the spin.

But then Waltrip said something even more peculiar when he asked, “What do they want, an arm?” Well, no Mr. Waltrip, assuming you’re talking about your lost sponsor, I think what they wanted is to know that they were not in a situation that would embarrass them as a corporation. Waltrip’s almost defiant statement is odd considering that 5-Hour Energy also indicated that it will take a look at its program at the end of the year.

Race teams are large corporations; the NAPA sponsorship was worth millions, as are MWR sponsors 5-Hour Energy and Aaron’s. Most large corporations involved in scandal always fire the source of the scandal as the first means of business. But Ty Norris — currently on indefinite suspension for allegedly singlehandedly making the decisions to manipulate the race — has Waltrip’s public support. In normal circumstances Norris would have been fired immediately, and certainly would not be on the payroll now that his decisions cost the team an $18 million annual sponsorship. Could it be that Waltrip actually helped mastermind the manipulation? We may never know, but it’s true that disgruntled ex-employees usually spill a lot of beans.

And it is a shame that this incident shines the spotlight on NASCAR itself. The president of 5-Hour Energy questioned the sport’s integrity given the fact that an extra Chase racer was added at Brian France’s whim. The fallout for MWR – and NASCAR – may go on well into the off-season. It’s a shame; all NASCAR had to do to get out of this cleanly was penalize Bowyer 100 points for intentionally bringing out the caution — per the rule book — and the Chase would have taken care of itself without any further manipulation.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.