The cost of a NASCAR scandal at Richmond International Raceway spiraled into the millions as NAPA announced its departure from Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season.
The auto parts supplier elected to leave with multiple years left on a contract to sponsor Martin Truex's No. 56 Toyota, which was tossed from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after NASCAR ruled that MWR had manipulated the finish of the race by having Brian Vickers deliberately slow his pace. A late pit stop by Vickers, plus a spin by teammate Clint Bowyer, helped Truex earn the final wild card for the Chase.
MWR received the stiffest punishment in NASCAR history – a $300,000 fine and 50-point penalties to Bowyer, Truex and Vickers – but the loss of NAPA could be more crippling. Last August, the company renewed a multiyear extension that the Sports Business Journal estimated at $16 million annually. NAPA has been with MWR since the team entered Sprint Cup in 2007 and aligned with team owner Michael Waltrip since joining NASCAR's premier series in 2001 with Dale Earnhardt's team.
CONTROVERSY: Bonuses, sponsor dollars at stake in Chase
In a statement posted to its Facebook page Thursday morning, the company said: "After thorough consideration, NAPA has made the difficult decision to end its sponsorship arrangement with Michael Waltrip Racing effective December 31, 2013. NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR. We remain supportive of the millions of NASCAR fans and will evaluate our future position in motorsports"
The team owner issued a statement, in which Waltrip said: "NAPA has been with me from winning two Daytona 500s, to missing races with a new start-up team, and back to victory lane again. The relationship grew far past that of just a sponsor, but more of a partner and a friend. We will not be racing a NAPA car in 2014, but I have friendships that will last a lifetime.
"To the fans and those who made their voice heard through social media, as the owner, I am responsible for all actions of MWR. I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond. NASCAR met with the competitors in Chicago and we all know how we are expected to race forward."
NATIONWIDE: Ending sponsorship of development series
In a statement, Michael Waltrip Racing said it's preparing to remain a three-car organization in the 2014 season.
"Michael Waltrip Racing respects the decision NAPA announced today following the events at Richmond," the team said. "There is no doubt, the story of Michael Waltrip Racing begins with NAPA Auto Parts, but there are many more chapters yet to be written. MWR has the infrastructure and support of Toyota for three teams plus three Chase-caliber, race-winning drivers. With the support of our corporate partners, we are preparing to field three teams in 2014. MWR is a resilient organization capable of winning races and competing for the championship and that remains our sole focus."
It was the second consecutive day that a NASCAR sponsor announced a major shift in its role. Nationwide revealed Wednesday that it would end its title sponsorship of NASCAR's No. 2 series after the 2014 season so that the insurance company could shift its investment to Sprint Cup.
The NAPA news casts a pall on the future of the team. It made the Chase for the second consecutive season after missing the 10-race title run in its first five seasons and earned wins by multiple drivers (Truex at Sonoma and Vickers at New Hampshire) in a season for the first time. But MWR didn't have full funding for Bowyer's car (co-owner Rob Kauffman was subsidizing the team for about a third of the season with sponsorship from RK Motors, his collector car company) and will need to fill a massive void in a competitive marketplace from the loss of NAPA, which is among only eight corporations believed to be sponsoring cars for a full Sprint Cup season. Other teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing still haven't announced their full sponsorship slates for 2014.
9-19-2013 martin truex jr.
Martin Truex Jr. was stripped of his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after NASCAR ruled Michael Waltrip Racing had tried to fix a race.(Photo: Rob Grabowski, USA TODAY Sports)
Kauffman, who made a fortune as an investment banker, bought a stake that helped stabilize the team near the end of its tumultuous first season that started with controversy for NAPA's No. 55 car driven by Waltrip.
The Toyota was found to have a fuel additive during qualifying at the 2007 Daytona 500. NASCAR docked the team 100 points, ejected crew chief David Hyder and executive Bobby Kennedy and fined Hyder $100,000. MWR and NAPA were making their debut with Toyota in what turned into the biggest cheating scandal at the Daytona 500 since 1978. Waltrip failed to qualify in 20 races with NAPA as a sponsor in its first season with MWR.
Ramsey Poston, president of strategic communication firm Tuckahoe Strategies and a former NASCAR executive, said the team would need a firm break from its past to rebound.
"Michael Waltrip Racing is an example of one of the great NASCAR success stories but it continues to be dogged by its own lapses in judgment," Poston said. "As a result, MWR is staring at the possibility of extinction unless it can restore faith within the racing community. That process has to begin with Michael being honest, offering a sincere apology, and taking aggressive action to change the culture of the company."
It's uncertain if more MWR sponsors could follow NAPA's lead.
Bowyer's sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, posted Sept. 10 on Twitter that "We respect NASCAR's penalties against MWR & are addressing our sponsorship relationship internally. We appreciate your understanding & patience."
Aaron's, which announced a multiyear extension last month as Vickers' sponsor, posted Sept. 9 on Facebook that "Aaron's appreciates your concern about Richmond's race and your loyalty to NASCAR. We respect the decision NASCAR made today and do not condone any practices that violate NASCAR rules."
Neither sponsor has had further comment.
Truex Jr. has maintained he didn't know about MWR's shenanigans and drove hard to finish seventh at Richmond in an attempt to claim a playoff berth. After Truex Jr. was bumped from the Chase field, more in-car radio transmissions -- which were the undoing of MWR's scheme -- surfaced that led NASCAR to make the unprecedented move of adding a 13th driver to the 12-driver playoff field. Jeff Gordon was given a slot Friday, just hours before qualifying for the first Chase race began at Chicagoland Speedway.
At the time, Truex Jr. said: "I'm not even sure what to say at this point. I'm kind of at a loss for words. They kick me out to make a spot for somebody and then they don't do the same for the other guys. It's just unfair and (there's) nothing I can do about it."
PHOTOS: Martin Truex Jr.'s racing career
Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in victory lane after winning the Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. It was his first win since June 2007. Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in victory lane after winning the Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. It was his first win since June 2007. Jerry Markland, Getty Images Fullscreen
Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in victory lane after winning the Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. It was his first win since June 2007. Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 2, 2013. Truex Jr. celebrates after winning the Autism Speaks 400 on June 4, 2007 at Dover Downs International Speedway. Truex Jr. stands with girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, during prerace ceremonies for the STP Gas Booster 500 on April 7, 2013, at Martinsville Speedway. Truex Jr. climbs into his car in the garage area during practice for the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 2013. Truex Jr. celebrates in victory lane after winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 23, 2013. Truex Jr. is interviewed during practice for the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway. Truex Jr. during qualifying for the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway. Truex Jr. has just two Sprint Cup victories in his career. He began racing on the circuit full-time in 2006. Truex Jr. celebrates after winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
On Thursday morning when news broke of NAPA's decision, 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski tweeted: "Wow That really hurts. Feel bad for the team and their families."
Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick tweeted: "FYI @MartinTruexJr56 is one of the the best people you will ever meet... Feel bad for him & his team.. Keep your heads up!
NAPA had alluded to possible action in a statement on its Facebook page Sept. 11 in which it strongly reprimanded MWR for its actions.
Last week, Ed Kiernan, president of Engine Shop, a New York-based marketing agency that works with corporate sponsors in sports, said it's "absolutely" standard practice that sponsors include morality clauses in deals with Sprint Cup teams. Kiernan said many companies ended endorsement contracts early with Tiger Woods and Michael Vick because of the athletes' transgressions.
Geoff Smith, the former president of Roush Fenway Racing who also is an attorney, said denials of culpability by Bowyer and by MWR of a planned orchestration might not have made a difference in NAPA's decision.
"Most if not all morality clauses allow the sponsor to sanction any act or event set into motion by the team, whether it actually occurred in fact or not," Smith told USA TODAY Sports. "It's if the act or event negatively impacts the name, goodwill or brand of the sponsor, or simply 'negatively reflects', as decided by the sponsor. The team could actually be innocent of committing the specific act, but if the controversy around the event negatively impacts the sponsor, then they can trigger the clause.
"Most teams attempt to mitigate the nearly total discretion the sponsors have in this regard by exempting anything that results from actions taken by the team during the race event."
Some teams have tried to build in more protection that guards against the potential of a default contract for an incident as minor as a driver cursing on his in-car radio. Smith said sponsors increasingly have gotten "think-skinned" about being tainted by the perception of rule breaking, particularly as NASCAR ratcheted up its officiating with the rollout of the Generation 5 car in 2007.
"Sponsors don't want to be associated with 'cheaters,' " he said. " We have received letters from sponsors following an ordinary postrace penalty declaring they will not be associated with cheaters -- a warning that they would try to invoke the morality clause if another penalty was issued."