Michael Waltrip’s rocky nine-year effort to build a successful race team was on the verge of collapse Wednesday as the organization said it will not run any cars full-time next season and released Clint Bowyer from his contract to pursue a new job for 2016.
The decisions are the fallout from co-owner Rob Kauffman’s recent purchase of an ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing. Kauffman bought 50 percent of MWR during its debut 2007 season to keep the team afloat.
Kauffman said in a statement that Bowyer and David Ragan will complete the season for MWR, and the team will “race hard and compete” through the end of the year. But the future plans for the organization were announced Wednesday because the team now has “clarity” after weighing its options.
“I want to thank all of our staff, partners, sponsors and fans for all their effort and support over the years,” Kauffman said. “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 is currently 16th in the Sprint Cup standings and has three races remaining to claim one of the 16 berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Although he could end up at Ganassi with sponsor 5-Hour Energy, Bowyer is more likely looking for a one-year deal to wait for an opening with one of NASCAR’s powerhouse teams in 2017. It’s possible he could replace Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing should the three-time NASCAR champion make 2016 his final season.
“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,” Bowyer said. “I am looking forward to what future opportunities may come but for now we have a championship to pursue in 2015 and we owe it to every one of our sponsors, partners, employees and fans to deliver on and off the track.”
5-Hour Energy said Bowyer was a “great ambassador for our products, customers and retailers” but had no comment on its future plans.
Founded by two-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip in 2007, MWR entered Sprint Cup competition as Toyota’s flagship team. But the team was involved in a cheating scandal before its very first Daytona 500 — Waltrip was found to have jet fuel in his engine — and its three cars struggled to qualify for races.
About to collapse midway through that first season, MWR and Waltrip were rescued by Kauffman’s investment.
The gains the organization made were nearly undone in 2013 when MWR was sanctioned by NASCAR for manipulating the outcome of the final race of the regular season. The team was accused of having Bowyer intentionally spin late in a race at Richmond to begin a sequence of events that earned MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. a spot in the Chase.
NASCAR kicked Truex out of the field and heavily fined MWR. Longtime sponsor NAPA left the organization at the end of the season, forcing Kauffman to shutter Truex’s team and release 16 percent of the MWR workforce.
The team has also had difficulties with its second car, meant to be driven by Brian Vickers. Health issues have sidelined Vickers and the car is currently being driven by Ragan. Aaron’s, another longtime MWR partner, has not renewed for 2016.
Toyota has also not renewed its manufacturing contract with Waltrip; the automaker has been courting Truex’s new team, Furniture Row Racing.
Ragan noted that he is 29 and believes his “best years are in front of me.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity that Michael Waltrip Racing and Toyota have provided me this year,” he said. “Going forward I will be working hard to secure a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series.”
Waltrip, who is also an analyst for Fox, was nostalgic Wednesday over his efforts to grow a team from the backyard of his North Carolina home into a viable competitor that competed for the Sprint Cup title in 2012 with Bowyer.
“I am proud of what we accomplished,” Waltrip said. “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.”
Waltrip would also love to unload his massive race shop in Cornelius, North Carolina, and not have to pay a mortgage on an empty building.
“My hope is somebody wants to have a really nice shop, full of really cool people that work together well and want to have a race team,” Waltrip said during the Truck Series broadcast. “Hopefully somebody wants to have a team and they could have it right there at our place.”