Veteran NASCAR Sprint Cup driver surprised by news that MWR was ending full-time participation in Cup series
Clint Bowyer called these “tough times” and said his future as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver is “uncertain right now” with many unknowns about where -– indeed, if at all –- he’ll be racing next year.
“I’ve had a great four years at Michael Waltrip Racing,” he said on Friday, “but I didn’t see this coming and I still have to provide for my family.”
Bowyer, the ever-joking, free-wheeling fan favorite with the 5-Hour Energy Drink sponsorship, has been dismissed by co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman. He’ll finish this Sprint Cup season in the No. 15 Toyota, then look to 2016 and beyond. But the problem is that most of 2016’s respectable rides are taken. It’s been suggested he’ll accept a lower-level “placeholder” ride — Kurt Busch did it several years ago and others have done the same –- while waiting for 2017. Many have suggested that Tony Stewart will be done by then and Bowyer will get that ride. Until then, he might find a temporary home at Harry Scott Motorsports or on a mid-level similar team looking for a major upgrade.
His release came as Kauffman — the rich investor who has kept MWR afloat in recent years — announced plans to abandon that organization and buy into Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. That Chevrolet-based stable fields competitive cars for veteran Jamie McMurray and relative newcomer Kyle Larson. Ganassi has expressed interest in a third team, but neither Bowyer nor MWR teammate David Ragan was thought to be a candidate. It now seems at least plausible … except that both Bowyer and Kauffman have repeatedly said their future paths don’t align.
About the only certainty is that MWR will shut down altogether or Waltrip will sell to someone who’ll field a team in the palatial shop in Cornelius, N.C. While he ponders his future (unlike many other MWR employees, he’ll land on his feet, likely in the broadcast booth), his people vow to keep trying to get Ragan or 16th-ranked Bowyer in the upcoming Chase for the Championship playoff series.
“I thank Michael, Rob and everyone at MWR who made these past four years special,” Bowyer said in a midweek statement. “After extensive discussions, we came to the point that we mutually agreed our paths just don’t align. I’m looking forward to what future opportunities may come, but for now we have a championship to pursue and owe it to every one of our sponsors, partners, employees and fans to deliver on and off the track.”
After years as a mid- to lower-level team working from a small shop with modest expectations and limited resources, Waltrip stepped up as one of Toyota’s high-profile startup teams in 2007. It hasn’t been an easy or uneventful nine years. He and crew chief David Hyder were caught cheating (illegal fuel) at its first race, the Daytona 500. Team driver Brian Vickers has suffered several medical setbacks that have cost him parts of three seasons and forced MWR to use numerous substitute drivers. At Richmond, in the fall of 2013, the organization was accused of manipulating the finish of the final regular-season race to get team driver Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase. All told, MWR has used 20 drivers since its 2002 inception, including nine in the past two-plus seasons. It has only seven victories and 188 top-10 finishes in its 754 career starts. Bowyer, in 2012 and 2013, has been its only top-10 points finisher.
On Friday, at Bristol, Bowyer said he’s confident his crew will continue to work as hard as it has since he arrived in 2012. “These employees are real people with real lives and real families and a lot at stake,” he said. “They’re racers just like I am, and the racer in you doesn’t change the reality side of life … which is that you need to provide for your family. We owe to it those people to be honest with them, and it was not a day later than what our agreement was (his and Kauffman’s) that they were told. It was extremely important that I get in front of that (announcement) because of what I owe the people who have worked their asses off for me to make these four years good and successful.
“After our announcement, every one of my guys and MWR employees –- my guys in particular, the road guys with me every week –- said, ‘Listen, we have a job to do. You (Bowyer) get your damn head straight and let’s go after this championship and end this on a bang.’ That’s the fire, the desire and the passion that racers have; you can’t take that from us. I’m very proud of my team and the people around me from day one at MWR.”
Kauffman made it abundantly clear why he’s leaving MWR and looking to team with the Ganassi-Sabates organization. “Mike and I are business partners and good personal friends,” he said on Friday, perhaps more somberly than he intended. “Michael Waltrip Racing really wouldn’t have existed through to today without substantial and continued financial support from me. I think that from a business standpoint, it didn’t make sense. You can’t have a top-10 budget and top-10 resources and not be in the top 10 for a sustained period of time.
“This is a performance-related business; it’s all about performance. It’s a great sport but a very difficult business model. From a business decision, it just made sense to not go forward with this organization, which isn’t really commercially viable. On a separate note: Voting with my wallet as well as my heart, (it makes sense) to continue to invest in the sport with Chip Ganassi Racing.”