The spin, like an earthquake, lasted about five seconds. Its aftershock is still being felt.
This was no ordinary I-want-to-be-a-NASCAR-driver spin. When Clint Bowyer followed orders to itch his arm and went sideways off turn 4 in the final laps of the regular season finale at Richmond last season, he set his organization back three years, cost Michael Waltrip Racing millions of dollars, cost employees their jobs and altered the course of his teammate’s career.
“That’s the craziest thing I ever saw,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told ESPN in his postrace interview on Sept. 7, 2013.
Junior was just referring to the spin, of course, but that quote would’ve summed up the aftermath pretty well, too. Once the dominoes started falling, it just got crazier. Martin Truex, Jr., who the spin helped get in the Chase, was removed three days later and replaced with Ryan Newman. NASCAR fined MWR $300,000 — the largest fine ever — and handed out suspensions. On Sept. 19, NAPA Auto Parts announced it was pulling its huge primary sponsorship two years early. MWR, unable to replace NAPA, was forced to scale back. It cut 15 percent of its workforce at year’s end.
Truex has been living a nightmare ever since. He was a part of the foundation at MWR, coming over in 2010 when it was a one-car operation just trying to stay above water. He worked through the growing pains and in September 2013 was at the height of his career. He finally won a race earlier that summer at Sonoma and was on the verge of making the Chase for a second consecutive season. One could be a fluke, but two trips to a 12-man Chase proved he was a top-notch driver and belonged there. He needed a late caution, but somehow Truex raced his way in and stood on the Chase podium, smiling for photos with the best in the sport.
Then his world was tipped upside down like a snow globe. It started with questions after the race asking about his part in the scandal. It ended up with a seemingly innocent Truex searching for a ride late in the season when only a couple of subpar rides are available.
Now, he’s an afterthought. Truex has become nothing more than Kyle Busch’s punching bag; Busch has wrecked him in two of the last four races.
Kurt Busch’s monumental overachievement in the No. 78 in 2013 is just making matters worse. Busch somehow put Furniture Row Racing in the Chase last season and flung himself back into an elite ride at Stewart-Haas Racing. In other words, his performance last season is making Truex look bad. The top car owners aren’t lining up for a 34-year-old who’s 25th in a 25th-place car. The only way to escape mediocrity in Cup is to consistently overachieve and hope that someone takes notice. The truth is unless Truex does that, he’ll spend the rest of his Cup career clawing for top 15s. His chances of getting back to relevance are slim.
The team that Truex helped build has a much better of returning to prominence, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. MWR came out of nowhere and announced itself as NASCAR’s newest elite team in 2012. Bowyer (three wins) and Truex both made the Chase for an organization clearly on the upswing. MWR won two more times (Brian Vickers, Truex) in 2013 and again had itself positioned for two Chase bids.
In 2014, it’ll be lucky if it has one. Bowyer either needs to win or to wreck Greg Biffle to get in Saturday (don’t put it past him) and Vickers needs to win. Bowyer had eight top-5 finishes last season at this point and was second in the standings. This year, he has three and is 13th in the non-Chase standings. It’s fair to say there has been a significant drop off in performance. That tends to happen when your Chase-caliber teammate’s team folds.
MWR’s antics at Richmond in 2013 are the reason it is a mid-pack team again. Bowyer’s spin might as well have a spin on the roulette table. MWR got greedy and went for broke with millions on the line that night and lost big. It’s paying for it now and will for years to come. That cheater stigma is still attached to MWR, and until it leaves, bringing more sponsorship dollars to the team is going to be a tall task.
The MWR layoffs are the saddest part of all. Those employees didn’t orchestrate the plot, or play any part in it, but still lost their jobs.
The scandal was a black eye for the sport, the cause of a lot of embarrassment. Bowyer’s spin wasn’t the organization’s only tactic that night. It also pitted Vickers multiple times to intentionally lose positions and team orders were shouted in code written by kindergarteners over the Nos. 15 and 55 radios. MWR would’ve gotten away with the rest, though. The spin is what cost Truex and MWR employees their jobs and nearly sank an organization on the rise.
It’s amazing how a short spin has caused a long nightmare.