Nine years following its full-time Sprint Cup debut and three years after nearly winning the championship, Michael Waltrip Racing is on the verge of extinction.
The two-car NASCAR team co-owned equally by Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman announced Wednesday that it would cease fielding cars full-time at the conclusion of the 2015 season. MWR is also permitting driver Clint Bowyer to pursue other opportunities for 2016 and dissolving his contract with the organization. (David Ragan, MWR's second driver, is a free agent at the end of the season.)
These series of moves follows Kauffman and Chip Ganassi Racing announcing last month that Kauffman was purchasing an undisclosed stake of Ganassi's two-car team. That transaction was expected to include Bowyer and sponsor 5-Hour Energy transitioning to Ganassi, which would expand to three cars pairing Bowyer with Ganassi drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.
Neither Kauffman nor Bowyer, however, indicated an intent to remain associated past this season in statements issued on Wednesday. Bowyer joined MWR in 2012 and in his first season won three races and finished second in the championship.
Bowyer owns eight career wins in 346 starts -- though none since 2012 -- and earned a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth five times. He currently ranks 15th in the series standings and provisionally holds the final spot to make NASCAR's playoffs on points.
"I want to thank Michael, Rob and everyone at Michael Waltrip Racing that made these past four years special," Bowyer said. "After extensive discussions with Rob and MWR, we came to the point that we mutually agreed our paths in the future just didn't align but I think we all agreed on the next steps in a very professional manner."
Said Kauffman: "Clint Bowyer has done a lot for MWR since joining us in 2012 and we appreciate the energy and effort he has given the organization. After many discussions, Clint and I agreed we would go our separate ways at the end of the season and I wish him well in whatever direction he pursues."
Bowyer's prospects of securing a ride with a big team for next season are remote. Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing all have set driver lineups for 2016 and already fields the maximum number of entries (four) NASCAR permits. And though each possesses room to expand, Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Richard Childress Racing do not present viable alternatives due to other plans in place.
If 5-Hour Energy were to remain as Bowyer's sponsor he would be an attractive option for Ganassi and Furniture Row Racing, with each having room to add additional teams. The energy drink company is evaluating its future it said in a statement.
Far bleaker is what happens to Ragan and MWR's hundreds of employees. Ragan has two victories in 313 starts and never qualified for the Chase, making it unlikely he lands a seat equivalent to MWR.
"I look forward to staying focused and trying to win a race this season for Aaron's and everyone at MWR," Ragan said. "Going forward I will be working hard to secure a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series. At 29 years old, I feel my best years are in front of me."
Kauffman, a billionaire investment banker, kept MWR solvent when he purchased 50 percent of the company in 2007, its first full season of operation.
After a turbulent beginning that included a Daytona 500 cheating scandal and struggling to qualify for races, MWR gradually improved its performance and ran three fully sponsored and competitive cars. But another cheating controversy in Sept. 2013 prompted a downswing in fortunes resulting in sponsor NAPA departing unexpectedly and the jettisoning of one of its teams.
MWR has not reached Victory Lane since July 2013 and had none of its drivers make the Chase last season.
"Rob joined MWR in 2007 and has helped give us the resources to build a competitive race team, and in 2012, Clint Bowyer took us to the doorstep of a championship," Waltrip said. "From where MWR started behind my house in Sherrill's Ford [N.C.] to winning Sprint Cup races, poles and earning Chase berths, I am proud of what we accomplished.
"My family has been a part of NASCAR for almost five decades and I plan on being a part of it for years to come. I would not have had the opportunity to start this journey without so many great partners, sponsors and employees and I want to thank each of them for making Michael Waltrip Racing a reality."