LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Michael Waltrip is willing to let driver Martin Truex Jr. leave for another team if Michael Waltrip Racing is unable to find sponsorship for the No. 56 car in 2014.
NAPA Auto Parts will end its multimillion-dollar sponsorship of MWR at the end of the year, the latest fallout from the team’s attempt to manipulate a race to get Truex into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
NAPA is Truex’s primary sponsor and in the first year of a three-year extension announced last August. The deal ran through the 2015 season and is believed to be worth at least $15 million a year.
“If he came to me tomorrow and said, ‘I got a deal to go do something,’ then obviously I would not hold him back,” Waltrip said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I owe him a lot for his loyalty and his passion for our team. I wouldn’t hold him back from doing something he wanted to do, but I’d like him to hang around so we can attract a sponsor and keep him in our cars.”
NASCAR took the unprecedented step of kicking Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, who would have made it into the field instead of Truex without MWR’s meddling. MWR was also fined $300,000, general manager Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely and all three crew chiefs for its drivers were placed on probation for the rest of the year.
The penalties levied against MWR led to a larger NASCAR investigation that uncovered at least one other case of race manipulation. NASCAR was then forced to expand the Chase field to 13 drivers to include Jeff Gordon and issue new rules banning digital radios and more than one team member per car on the spotter stand.
NASCAR chairman Brian France also ordered all competitors to give 100 percent at all times during a meeting in which it was made clear attempts to artificially alter the outcome of races would be prohibited.
Waltrip continued at New Hampshire to apologize for his team’s actions.
“We will race forward with respect and appreciation for being able to be here,” he said. “We’ll start to regain trust.”
Aaron’s, sponsor of Brian Vickers for MWR, said it remains dedicated to the organization, but Clint Bowyer sponsor 5-Hour Energy said Thursday it was still evaluating its relationship with MWR.
Waltrip said Friday that he “fully expects” 5-Hour Energy to remain with MWR. MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman pumped in much-needed cash and brought stability and accountability to the organization. Waltrip said Kauffman could help fund Truex in 2014.
NAPA’s decision will end a relationship with Waltrip that dates to 2001. NAPA was sponsor for Waltrip for both of his Daytona 500-winning cars and moved with him when he formed Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007. The company took over sponsorship of Truex when he joined MWR in 2010 and as Waltrip’s replacement.
This is the second scandal NAPA has been through with Waltrip, who was found to have a fuel additive in his engine in his debut race, the 2007 Daytona 500.
“They just felt like the events of the last 10 days had spiraled out of control a bit,” Waltrip said. “They felt like what we were involved with and NASCAR penalized us for was more than they were comfortable dealing with, more than they were comfortable with accepting. They worked hard to try to figure out a way to hang around.”
The loss of a primary sponsor, particularly with only nine races left in the season, is a big blow to Waltrip. It will be a tremendous challenge to quickly replace the money because NAPA is a rare sponsor that covers the entire 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.
Should MWR not secure sponsorship to replace NAPA, it could lead to layoffs of nearly 100 employees and the possible shuttering of Truex’s team.
“We’re going to race ahead,” Waltrip said. “We’re going to try to find funding for the 56 and have three cars in the competition for the Chase next year. “