After Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the regular season finale Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR officials responded swiftly with hefty penalties.
The sanctioning body fined MWR a NASCAR-record $300,000, suspended general manager Ty Norris indefinitely and docked 50 points from each of the team's drivers, which effectively removed Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
However, the harshest penalty placed upon MWR came Thursday. It was then that NAPA announced it was ending its long association with MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip and would cease sponsoring Truex's No. 56 car at the end of the season directly because of what transpired at Richmond.
"I think that a sponsor leaving probably is certainly bigger than those penalties," Jeff Gordon said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "That is hard to replace especially this point in the season. I think 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."
With two years remaining on its contract, which called for annual payments estimated between $15-18 million, this is a significant blow to MWR and its future. Even Gordon, who was one of the benefactors from the penalties issued to MWR, called the news "unfortunate."
But NAPA's decision is also noteworthy on a multitude of levels outside of just how it affects MWR.
NAPA is one of a few select companies that sponsors the entirety of the Sprint Cup Series Schedule, but its future in the sport is now in question. In a statement released Thursday, the company only said it was evaluating its "future in motorsports." Whether this means finding a new to support or dropping out of NASCAR remains to be seen, but the loss of a high-profile company is not just a loss for MWR but could be for the sport as a whole.
"Hopefully, (NAPA will) still be part of the sport cause it is one of the mainstays of the sport that has always done the (full season), which is kind of the exception and not the rule these days," Matt Kenseth said. ... The best case would have been for them to stay over there where they have been forever, but hopefully they'll pick up and still be part of the sport."
The unexpected news has also placed Truex in limbo. Without a prominent sponsor for next season there is uncertainty about viability of the No. 56 team going forward.
Despite losing NAPA, Waltrip said Friday MWR will continue to run three cars full-time next season and if need be self-sponsor the No. 56 team through co-owner Rob Kauffman's car restoration business. Although he wants Truex to remain with the organization, Waltrip has given him permission to seek rides elsewhere.
"His support and loyalty to our organization has been amazing," Waltrip said. "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."