With his organization implicated in the biggest scandal in recent NASCAR history along with the defection of a high-dollar sponsor, Michael Waltrip admits he was concerned about the future of the team he co-owns.
"It's been a rocky couple of weeks," Waltrip said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "Yes, I was scared; I was uncertain of our future. After speaking with the folks from Aaron's and all of our partners, they're supporting us and they're going to stick with us and believe that we are a quality first-class organization.
"We will race forward with respect and appreciation for being able to be here. We'll start to gain back trust."
On Thursday, NAPA announced it was ending its 13-year association with Waltrip in the aftermath of the team he co-owns manipulating the finishing order of the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway. This followed Michael Waltrip Racing being fined a record $300,000 and saw NASCAR take the unprecedented step of removing NAPA-sponsored Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
And these events, which have created an indelible black eye for both the sport in general and for MWR, simply became too much for the company to bear. It was a decision that didn't surprise Waltrip.
"They just felt like the events of the last 10 days had spiraled out of control a bit," he said. "They felt like what we were involved with and NASCAR penalized us for was more than they were comfortable dealing with, more than they were comfortable with accepting.
"They worked hard to try to figure out a way to hang around. ... . We worked really hard with them to try to come to some sort of solution to move forward. ... They weren't thrilled with the way the whole situation was handled and that played into a part of it. But we put them in that position and we put them in a bad spot."
Waltrip's long relationship with NAPA began in 2001 when he won the Daytona 500 driving for Dale Earnhardt. And the company stayed with him when he decided to form his own team in 2007 and through numerous setbacks including officials discovering illegal fuel additive in Waltrip's car prior to the 2007 Daytona 500.
When asked if his team unfairly punished by NASCAR Waltrip wouldn't directly say, stating "It's done." He went on to explain that he wasn't angered by the ruling and accepts the sanctions, though he question why other teams weren't equally penalized for offenses he deems similar.
Waltrip is unsure what NAPA's future plans include and whether it will stay involved with NASCAR. But the loss of a sponsorship deal estimated between $15-18 million annually over the next two years has created a large void at MWR.
The plan is for the team to continue fielding three cars full-time in 2014 with the hope that another sponsor can be found for Truex's No. 56 team. If not, one possibility is for co-owner Rob Kauffman to fill in the sponsorship gaps through his muscle car restoration business, as he's done this season on the No. 15 car of Clint Bowyer.
As for Truex's future with MWR that too remains in doubt. Waltrip said he wouldn't stand in the way if Truex lined up a ride with another team, but did ask his driver for some time to sort out the particulars.
"We asked (Truex) if we could have a little time to try to figure this out and he agreed to that," Waltrip said. "If he came to me tomorrow and said, ‘I have 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 crappy cars when he first got to our shop. We were able to build those 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 and his passion for our team. 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."
Waltrip remains steadfast that there was no elaborate preconceived scheme to ensure Truex qualified for the Chase.
When asked about Bowyer's single-car car spin that greatly benefited Truex and appeared to be calculated, Waltrip defended his driver saying Bowyer did not do so deliberately. And he reiterated that MWR general manager Ty Norris, since indefinitely suspended by NASCAR, took it upon himself in ordering Brian Vickers to pit mysteriously under the green flag.
And as his team attempts to recover from a situation it created, what Waltrip most wants is to regain the trust of those offended.
"We made some mistakes during the course of those final laps and we're sorry for that," Waltrip said. "We apologize to the fans. We totally understand their concerns. We will race ahead with much dignity and respect as humanely possible.
"No matter what happens in life or in sport, you learn from it. You become stronger, you become better. I think our organization has learned a great deal about going forward and being a strong team. I look forward to watching us grow from this unfortunate incident."