Michael Waltrip Racing experienced a rollercoaster 2013 season filled with a few highs, unbelievable lows and plenty of twists along the way. That unevenness has placed the team in a precarious position this offseason.
2013 In the Rearview
Looking back on the year, the 2013 Michael Waltrip Racing season should really be divided into two sections. The first part was fantastic, with Martin Truex Jr. scoring a dominant win at Sonoma that was followed by Brian Vickers' storybook victory at New Hampshire. All the while, Clint Bowyer continued with the steadiness he exhibited to finish runner-up in the championship the year before and from May to the end of the regular season was never lower than fifth in points.
Then, just like that MWR's once magical season went poof in the Richmond night. As overwhelming evidence suggesting the team conspired to manipulate the finish of the Sept. 7 regular season finale prompted NASCAR to react accordingly. Truex was booted from the Chase for the Sprint Cup, general manager Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely and the backlash was such that NAPA decided to pull its $16 million sponsorship.
When the smoke cleared, the once promising season became one filled with controversy and unfilled potential. Never able to escape his role in the Richmond shenanigans, Bowyer was detached in the Chase, which was reflected in his performance on the track. Most impactful, because of NAPA's departure, MWR had little choice but to downsize to two full-time teams, forcing Truex to leave for a ride elsewhere.
2014 Driver Lineup
Clint Bowyer (No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota); Brian Vickers (No. 55 Aaron's Toyota)
MWR is the definition of an organization in flux. The contraction from three full-time teams to two has seen Truex, his crew chief Chad Johnston and the entire No. 56 pit crew depart for other opportunities. Also gone is crew chief Rodney Childers, under his leadership the No. 55 car became a consistent challenger the last two seasons with various drivers behind the wheel. Team engineer Billy Scott has been tabbed as Childers' replacement.
To provide guidance and hopefully a steadying force behind the scenes, MWR has signed veteran Jeff Burton to a part-time deal. The 46-year-old has 21 Cup victories to his name and will be expected to fill the same role as Mark Martin did before he departed in August for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Biggest Offseason Question
After an uneven and controversy filled year there are serious questions about MWR's future and its viability going forward. The loss of NAPA and its multi-million dollar sponsorship is a void MWR has yet to fill and will be challenged to do so.
The biggest obstacle facing MWR is how to be as strong a two-car team as it was when it fielded three entries full-time. Running two cars isn't a death knell as Penske Racing has shown with its championship campaign in 2012, but the mass departure of talents like Truex, Johnston, and Childress is significant.
Further compounding the problem is the uncertain futures of Bowyer and sponsor 5-Hour Energy. Each party has contracts that expire next year and the loss of either would be crippling.
Bowyer has continually stated how happy he is at MWR and wants to remain with the organization long-term. 5-Hour Energy, however, doesn't seem as committed. In the aftermath of Richmond, the company's president was none too pleased with the sanctions handed down by NASCAR and thought the penalties were heavy-handed. Was that just frustration or a sign the company isn't happy and may look to leave the sport entirely following the 2014 season? Stay tuned.
There is no doubting Bowyer's driving prowess and his crew chief, Brian Pattie, may be one of the more underrated talents in the garage. Additionally, with three career wins and a Chase berth on his résumé, Vickers is capable of being competitive. However, despite the aptitude of its drivers, it's hard to remain optimistic about MWR's prospects in 2014. Too many key personnel have exited and until there is a resolution on the futures of Bowyer and 5-Hour Energy, there will continue to be a dark cloud hovering over the organization.