LOUDON, N.H. — Sounding contrite and rattled, Sprint Cup team owner Michael Waltrip acknowledged Friday that the race-manipulating scandal his operation engaged in could cost him one of three teams and driver Martin Truex Jr.
NAPA Auto Parts, a longtime partner with Waltrip, announced Thursday that it is pulling sponsorship from the Toyota driven by Truex, effective the end of the year, in the wake of the incident at Richmond, Va., on Sept. 7.
NASCAR severely sanctioned Michael Waltrip Racing in response to allegations driver Clint Bowyer intentionally spun to help Truex make the 12-driver Chase field and that teammate Brian Vickers may have pitted without cause, also to manipulate the Richmond race. Truex was pulled from the Chase field. NASCAR fined Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000 and sanctioned team personnel.
NAPA’s departure will cost Waltrip tens of millions in sponsorship money. It could also cost him the services of Truex.
“A race car driver has to know what his deal is for next year. Obviously there’s a lot of concern,” Waltrip said Friday morning.
“We asked if we could have a little time to figure this out and he agreed to that. 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.
“His support and loyalty to our organization has been amazing. He drove some kind of crappy cars when he first got to our shop. We were able to build those cars and make them faster. He’s become a race-winning Chase guy. I owe him a lot.”
Waltrip said that with the financial backing of co-owner Rob Kauffman, the intent is still to field three race teams in 2014. Waltrip said Kauffman might be willing to sponsor Truex’s No. 56 entry as part of his muscle-car restoration business.
But clearly Waltrip is less than confident about the future of his operation.
“It’s been a rocky couple of weeks. Yes, I was scared and uncertain about our future,” Waltrip said. “After speaking with folks from Aaron’s (Vickers’ primary sponsor) and all of our partners, they’re supporting us. They’re sticking with us.”
Waltrip said he’s talked to 5-Hour Energy – Bowyer’s sponsor – and they are on board to continue in 2014.
Waltrip’s relationship with NAPA goes back to when he was a full-time driver. Those ties are deep. What broke them?
“They 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.
“... We put them in that position – in a bad spot.”
While acknowledging bad judgment, Waltrip maintained there was not a “master plan’’ to manipulate the results of the Richmond race. While Waltrip was generally repentant in his remarks, he said of criticism during the past week, “Do they want an arm? What are they looking for?”
Waltrip implied that some of the things done at Richmond had previously been gray areas in NASCAR protocol.
“It hasn’t made a lot of sense to me,’’ Waltrip said. “But we now clearly understand what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.”
“I just hope we can put this behind us,” Waltrip concluded. “Clint did not spin on purpose. I stand behind him. We made some mistakes during the course of those final laps that made the day a bit of a mess. We’re sorry for that.
“It’s millions of dollars we don’t have. I don’t know the impact of that because we might get them somewhere else….Hopefully we find funding.”
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell