NAPA Auto Parts announced Thursday it would end its sponsorship contract with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) in light of the NASCAR Sprint Cup team’s race-manipulation scandal. The auto parts supplier, the primary sponsor of the MWR car driven by Martin Truex Jr., was in the first year of a three-year contract estimated to be worth $16 million annually. Coupled with the stiffest punishment in NASCAR history—a $300,000 fine for the team owner and 50-point penalties against the team’s three drivers—NAPA’s departure could spell the end for the MWR team.
“NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR,” the company, which has been associated with driver and owner Michael Waltrip for many years, said in a statement.
At the Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 7, MWR driver Clint Bowyer appeared to deliberately spin his car out with seven laps to go, bringing out a caution flag. Ryan Newman of Stewart-Haas Racing, who was the race leader when Bowyer spun out, needed to win the race in order to secure the final spot in NASCAR’s season-ending, 10-race “playoffs” known as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As the top cars pitted, Newman fell behind and finished in fifth place and out of the Chase. Additionally, MWR driver Brian Vickers intentionally slowed down during the final laps of the race, affecting the finish of other cars and ensuring teammate Truex earned a spot in the Chase.
Two days later, NASCAR ruled that MWR deliberately manipulated the outcome of the race and removed Truex from the 12-driver Chase field, replacing him with Newman. (Later in the week, NASCAR also punished Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports for trying to manipulate the finish at Richmond, putting both teams on probation and making the unprecedented move of adding a 13th driver to the Chase field, Jeff Gordon, who likely would have made the Chase on his own had these late-race activities not taken place.)
“As the owner, I am responsible for all actions of MWR,” Waltrip said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond.”
This is the second major scandal during Waltrip’s career— the previous one occurred during 2007 Daytona 500 when NASCAR inspectors discovered a fuel additive in his car’s engine.
The line between cheating and cleverness is very fine in NASCAR, as teams take any possible advantage when competing for the Cup. But this case is fairly clear—NASCAR investigators reviewed team communications in which Vickers was ordered to slow down in the final laps.
“Michael Waltrip Racing is an example of one of the great NASCAR success stories but it continues to be dogged by its own lapses in judgment,” Ramsey Poston, a former NASCAR executive, told USA Today. “As a result, MWR is staring at the possibility of extinction unless it can restore faith within the racing community.”
According to ESPN, Aaron’s, which sponsors Vickers car, is sticking with MWR, but 5-Hour Energy, the sponsor of Bowyer’s car, said Thursday it was evaluating its relationship with the team.