Michael Waltrip: under the gun (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
This mess just keeps getting deeper.
NASCAR's spinmeisters better be working overtime. This Richmond thing doesn't look to be going away.
The big mess NASCAR has been floundering in since those now infamous final moments at Richmond, Va., two weeks ago -- well, that big mess just got a heckava lot messier.
Already billed by some as this sport's worst crisis of confidence in integrity, the controversy refuses to fade away, even as race teams head into Round Two of the championship playoffs here this weekend.
Long-time sponsor NAPA is now dumping Michael Waltrip because of his teams' attempts to manipulate the finish of the Richmond 400 and game more playoff spots for the Sprint Cup championship chase.
The loss of the next two seasons of NAPA sponsorship will likely cost Waltrip and his three-team stock car racing operation more than $30 million.
That's a big, big hit.
And it comes during a stretch where any sponsorship is hard to come by.
NAPA officials say the sponsorship will end at the end of this year.
"NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalities assessed by NASCAR," the auto parts company said in a statement.
NAPA's next move is up in the air. But as an auto parts company, and long-time racing sponsor, NAPA will probably remain in NASCAR with some type of sponsorship.
Certainly there are a number of quarterpanels that could use some big-money decals. And NASCAR itself is looking for major sponsor for its current Nationwide series, with Nationwide just announcing it would be dropping that sponsor.
Waltrip, who just renewed with NAPA last fall, issued a brief statement:
"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."
Ironically, and perhaps sadly, the man most hurt by this latest twist is Martin Truex Jr., seemingly the one innocent. The NAPA sponsor is on his car. He did nothing wrong at Richmond...but the Waltrip organization .
And also ironically the man whose Richmond spin is seen as the trigger for the whole deal, Clint Bowyer, remains essentially unsanctioned, and still professes his innocence.
So far NASCAR's official responses have been late and lukewarm, and the new rules -- insistence that all drivers race at 100 percent -- don't appear to be nearly enough to resolve the basic issues.
The sanctioning body was caught by surprise, for some reason, with the machinations at Richmond, though it certainly should have been sharper about possibilities of nefarious maneuvering. Every September for 10 years now, in the pre-race drivers' meeting at Richmond, drivers have been warned to play fair.
NASCAR just took it for granted that drivers would play fair.
This time, though, they didn't.
And it all blew up in NASCAR's face.
Audio from team radios was damning. First question -- why wasn't NASCAR monitoring more closely? NASCAR curtly dismissed Bowyer's spin as just racing that Saturday night. Clearly the audio told a different story.
Second, why wasn't NASCAR's reaction much more forceful? It took nearly the entire week for the sanctioning body to try to deal with the situation.
And now there is still nothing in place really to preclude drivers from again trying to manipulate the game. This is the championship on the line, remember.
Where is the credibility?
NASCAR's argument that it couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowyer did anything wrong at Richmond simply isn't being bought by many fans.
NBC, soon to be NASCAR's newest TV partner, at least took note of all this, on the NBC Nightly News Chicago weekend. But again NASCAR executives appeared a day late and a dollar short in their reaction.
And evidence of NASCAR's -- dare we say it -- panic has been clear.
Where's the counter-marketing?
It looks like NASCAR officials simply underestimated the situation and how it would be seen by the sports world at large.
Clearly NAPA executives and 5-Hour executives see things rather starkly.
Maybe Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie just made serious errors in judgment. But there was no game plan in place for NASCAR to be able to deal with that.
And there still isn't.
The '100 percent' rule is rather silly on its face. In any other sport, insisting players play at 100 percent goes without saying. Why does this sport have to make that a rule? And how in the world is it really going to enforce such a rule? Would such a rule even have prevented the Richmond fiasco?
And consider the depth of the Richmond debacle -- not only Bowyer's spin, and his extra long pit stop, and teammate Brian Vickers' stunning team orders to pit road, to alter the finishing order, but then the David Gilliland-Roger Penske issue too?
How many other moves during the Richmond race, or the Atlanta race a week earlier, or in any of the races leading up to the chase, could be seriously questioned now?
It's easy to say, now, that NASCAR should have -- and could have -- handled things better....more swiftly, for one, and more decisively, and more forcefully.
But NASCAR, remember, has the curious philosophy that the race day 'winner' gets to keep the win no matter what, that the fans 'deserve' to go home after the event thinking they really saw what really happened.
Clint Bowyer and team owner Michael Waltrip: more shoes yet to fall? This Richmond isn't over yet, it would appear (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)