Other drivers say loss of longtime brand major blow to sport
LOUDON, N.H. – NASCAR sent shock waves through the Sprint Cup garage with its unprecedented punishment of Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway.
But the biggest ripple from those penalties – NAPA’s decision Thursday to vacate the final two seasons of its sponsorship with Martin Truex Jr. — might have even stronger reverberations than the $300,000 fine and 50-point dockings for MWR’s driver trio (which bumped Truex from the Chase for the Sprint Cup).
“I think that a sponsor leaving is certainly bigger than those penalties,” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. “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.”
The news of NAPA’s exit was met mostly with sympathy by NASCAR teams at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which will play host to Sunday’s Sylvania 300.
Team owner Michael Waltrip struck a hopeful tone in addressing the news media Friday morning, but the task ahead is daunting. MWR will need to fill a funding void of at least $30 million over the next two years without NAPA.
Truex Jr., who attended a NAPA event in Woonsocket, R.I., on Thursday evening just hours after the sponsor announced its plans, has generally kept a low profile since the controversy broke. He told reporters after qualifying Friday that he wants to stay with MWR, but has to consider all his options for 2014.
Gordon has benefited from MWR’s misfortune, being added to the Chase as a 13th driver last week after being bumped from a top 10 berth in part when teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers made pit stops. But the Hendrick Motorsports driver didn’t take any pleasure in the latest development.
“That is unfortunate,” Gordon said. “You see a team go through some decisions and choices, and you want a team to get penalized for those types of things no matter what. But you never want to see it go to this level where they lose a sponsor. That is really unfortunate.”
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 Chevrolet has become synonymous with Lowe’s during a 12-season run, was stunned that NAPA would end a partnership that dates to Waltrip’s 2001 Daytona 500 victory.
“Definitely shocked (given) the long-standing relationship that Michael has had with NAPA,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what message it sends. Clearly there’s been a lot of things discussed over the last couple of weeks, and the sponsor stood up and said, ‘Hey, this is where we stand.’
“In this tough economy, we hate to see sponsors leave, and it’s going to be very challenging for MWR with the loss of such a major sponsor.”
But will it be a major loss for NASCAR, too?
Some already were shifting focus toward whether NAPA would elect to stay in Cup with another team, perhaps moving in tandem with Truex (who has approval to leave from Waltrip).
“Hopefully, (NAPA will) still be part of the sport cause it is one of the mainstays (that) has always done the (full season), which is kind of the exception and not the rule these days,” points leader 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.”
With sponsorship dominating the headlines lately – Nationwide announced Wednesday it would pull support of NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit after 2014 in favor of spending in Cup – Kyle Busch made a plea for NASCAR Nation to bear some accountability in making Corporate America happy.
“It’s frustrating,” said Busch, who got in hot water with sponsor Mars/M&Ms after the fallout from an intentional wreck resulted in losing support for the final two races of the 2011 season. “There’s a lot of race fans that sometimes voice their opinion about there not being enough competitive cars each and every week, but yet they’ll send in their comments to sponsors that they shouldn’t sponsor that team or that driver because of some of the things that happen on the race track and all of that does is drive sponsors away from our sport. So, it’s not a good thing to be doing those sorts of things.”