Clint Bowyer (L) is still on the hot seat, and Ryan Newman (R) is on the pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Matt Kenseth, like others in the garage, would just like for this whole Michael Waltrip Racing mess to simply go away.
Kenseth -- atop the Sprint Cup standings, after his league-leading sixth win of the season -- is more interested in the charge toward the NASCAR championship. Remember, this is the guy whose runaway 2003 championship led sports boss Brian France to create this 'chase' format in the first place....
Yet the continuing fallout from the Richmond 400 manipulations keeps overshadowing NASCAR's playoffs.
Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, all championship chase contenders, led a Chevrolet sweep in Friday qualifying for Sunday's New Hampshire 300, with the top three breaking Brad Keselowski's two-month-old track record. Newman's 136.497 mph run was his second pole of the season.
"I've said it before, and it's still true -- this is the birthplace of 'track position,'" Newman said. "It is tough to pass here."
Ten of the 12 fastest are playoff drivers. The men with the best career average finishes here are Denny Hamlin, who is not in the chase, Jimmie Johnson and Gordon.
However the latest twists in the Michael Waltrip saga dominated the warm, sunny day.
And that doesn't set well with some drivers here.
"I still haven't watched the Richmond race, or seen even the highlights of that stuff," Kenseth insisted.
"I was hoping after we got to race at Chicago that all that stuff was in the rear view mirror.
"Obviously it wasn't.
"I think everybody is probably looking forward to getting it behind us as a sport.
" I can't imagine being in Michael's shoes the last week-and-a-half.
"It's certainly been really unfortunate for everybody."
Now Kenseth himself got caught up in a strange controversy back in the spring, after that engine issue at Kansas.
But the Kenseth-Kansas flap was nothing compared to this Waltrip-Richmond thing.
So maybe something weird in Round Two of the chase will give everyone something else to talk about. This place does tend to bring out the weird in this sport.
Matt Kenseth, atop the standings (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However it looks like there could be even more fallout from Richmond to come: Will Martin Truex Jr. stick around for another season, after losing this sponsorship, or will he move on to another team? Will 5-Hour Energy follow NAPA's lead at the end of the season, creating yet another big financial void?
There is even speculation that the loss of NAPA's multi-million-dollar sponsorship could put Waltrip's entire stock car racing operation in jeopardy. "Possible extinction," in one report, insisting that's not hyperbole.
However it's not like Waltrip hasn't played against such drama before, in a career that started more than 30 years ago, in NASCAR's Baby Grand series.
Waltrip -- colorful, sometimes outlandish, never at a loss for words -- does once again appear on the ropes.
But once again he will almost certainly come out the other side of the tunnel.
He just has that amazing touch.
This comeback, though, could be one for the books.
Heck, anyone who can walk away from THIS with hardly a scratch is a cat with more than nine lives.
Michael Waltrip: optimistic. Still....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR's penalties levied last week on the Waltrip organization and its three teams were rather heavy.
But Jeff Gordon points out "A sponsor leaving probably is certainly bigger than those penalties. That is hard to replace especially this point in the season.
"That was a very loud message that was sent to MWR as well as everyone in this sport....about what our expectations are, and our actions -- what they can result in if they are negative actions.
"You see a team go through some decisions (like Waltrip's men did), and you want a team to get penalized for those types of things, no matter what team it is. But you never want to see it go to this level where they lose a sponsor. That is really unfortunate."
Martin Truex Jr. (L) breaks a long drought by winning Sonoma in June. Hi-Fives team owners Rob Kaufmann (R) and Michael Waltrip (upper R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kyle Busch called the loss of the NAPA sponsorship "a little disappointing.... because it's a tough economy, a tough sport, to try to pick up sponsors and bring them on in."
Jimmie Johnson agrees, and he says he was "definitely shocked" at NAPA's decision, because of "the long-standing relationship Michael has had with Napa.
"I don't know what message it sends....
"Clearly there have been a lot of things flushed out and discussed the last couple of weeks. The sponsor stood up and said 'Hey, this it where we stand.'
"But in this tough economy, and tough world right now, we hate to see sponsors leave. It's going to be very challenging with the loss of such a major sponsor."
Waltrip concedes NAPA execs "weren't totally thrilled the way the whole situation was handled. But we put them in that position... put them in a bad spot.
" A lot of folks voiced a lot of concern with our team to them. They had to react. I can't say I was overly surprised."
Waltrip said the reaction to the things that happened at Richmond "spiraled out of control.
"It's a fair decision to hang around with us until the end of the year; I'll always wear NAPA blue. I'm thankful they were a part of my life. I'm just disappointed we let them down.
"We made a mistake in the heat of the battle."
This, then, is the man who, now 50 and facing his newest crisis, met the press here Friday morning, the day after losing a $30 million-plus deal.
"It's been a rocky couple of weeks," Waltrip says in understatement.
"I was uncertain of our future."
But now Waltrip says he's more optimistic: "The folks from Aaron's and all of our partners, they're supporting us. They're going to stick with us... and believe that we are a first-class organization.
"We will race forward with respect and appreciation for being able to be here.
"We'll start to regain trust."
The controversy, Waltrip says, "has brought us closer together as an organization.
"It's easy to get bogged down in all the negativity. So when you see people smile, and pat you on the back, and say 'We're going to get through this,' it means a lot."
Bowyer's sponsor says it is evaluating its situation and won't make any decisions until the end of the season. Scott Henderson, president of 5-hour ENERGY, is expected to be here this weekend. "We believe with all our heart," Waltrip says, "they will stay and we'll race Clint for the championship again in 2014."
However Truex Jr.'s position seems unclear at the moment. Truex just signed a three-contract with Waltrip last year. But losing sponsor NAPA could change all that.
Waltrip insists he plans to run three teams again next year, and that partner Rob Kaufmann could provide some more sponsorship, and that they would like Truex back again.
Waltrip says he's asked Truex to give him "a little time to figure this out."
It's not clear if Truex has been approached by other team owners.
But Waltrip said "If he came to me tomorrow and said 'I've got a deal to go do something,' then obviously I would not hold him back."
And after all replacing an $18 million a year sponsor, and so late in a season, won't be easy.
Ironically this has been one of Truex' best seasons, his fourth with Waltrip. "His support and loyalty to our organization has been amazing," Waltrip says. "He drove some crappy cars when he first got to our shop. We were able to build cars better and make them faster. He's been able to be a race-winning chase guy.
"I owe him a lot for his loyalty.
"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."
When it comes to determination and staying power, Waltrip has it.
It took him 463 Cup races, almost 17 years on the tour, to earn his first win...and that, in the 2001 Daytona 500, was overshadowed by the death of team owner and good buddy Dale Earnhardt.
When he took the gamble, on invitation from Toyota, to try his hand as owner-driver, he didn't try it as a single-car operation, or even a two-car operation, but as a three-car team. And that 2007 season was a doozy, right from the git-go, with that Sterno in the manifold trick at Daytona that led to some surprising NASCAR penalties -- he finished that season-opener 30th...and with a points penalty, Waltrip went to the second race 27 points in the hole, a NASCAR first.
That woeful beginning put Waltrip in a huge financial hole, and the next spring he went out looking for a new, big backer, and came up with an angel in international investor Rob Kaufmann, who saved the franchise.
Waltrip and Kaufmann have worked together ever since, not just in NASCAR but in other races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
But it wasn't until last season that Waltrip and Kaufmann finally put together all the pieces:
-- they hired Clint Bowyer, who not only made the playoffs but finished second in the championship chase, with cast-off crew chief Brian Pattie;
-- they hired veteran engineer Scott Miller as competition director;
-- and they signed Martin Truex Jr., on the team since 2010 though winless, to a new three-year contract last fall, after he made the chase. Truex won the June Sonoma race, his first tour win since 2007.
That 2012 season was easily Waltrip's best-ever as team owner. And 2013 started even better -- over the first six months, Michael Waltrip Racing's three-car operation could boast a better finishing average than any other except Rick Hendrick's. And if you took then super-hot Jimmie Johnson out of the stats, Waltrip's bunch had even better finishing numbers than Hendrick's guys.
And Bowyer was well on track to challenge for the championship.
That's quite a rags-to-riches story.
Kaufmann, though, has yet to discuss publicly the current crisis, though Waltrip said they talked early Friday morning.
Waltrip insists there was no "master plan to manipulate the race" at Richmond, and he seems a bit miffed that his teams have been hit so hard for some things that he senses others have done too, to much less furor.
"I feel, as a whole, we're a very respectful, appreciative, humble organization.
"You earn your trust.
"We've disappointed some fans... and we're going to work our butts off to gain that trust back."
NASCAR's 13 championship chase drivers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)