CHARLOTTE, N.C. — These are strange times in NASCAR, where everything has turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
Michael Waltrip Racing is fighting for its survival in the wake of a race-fixing scandal and a driver who woke up two Mondays ago in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is now looking for a job. Sponsors are taking a stand, too — against a team over ethics, maybe even against NASCAR for the perception that all teams are not treated equally.
A single-car team based in Colorado suddenly has the most desired seat in the garage, and when the music stops, a pair of respected veterans and the Nationwide Series championship leader may be left standing without rides because the youth movement has clearly taken over.
Maybe everything went haywire when Tony Stewart broke his leg Aug. 5. That’s when co-owner Gene Haas went rogue, seizing the opportunity while Stewart was incapacitated to finalize a deal to hire the seemingly untouchable Kurt Busch.
Nothing else has made much sense since then.
Busch, whose talent had taken tiny Furniture Row Motorsports to the verge of a Chase berth, was suddenly headed back to a dream job. With Stewart sidelined for the rest of the season, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski stuck in a slump and perpetual contender Denny Hamlin out of Chase contention, the field was open to roughly 10 drivers suddenly vying for a golden ticket into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
As Furniture Row walked the fine line of courting a new driver — the team flew Juan Pablo Montoya to Colorado for a shop tour — while making last-minute preparations for Busch’s Chase push, Michael Waltrip Racing was readying its fleet for the homestretch. MWR had a legitimate title contender in Clint Bowyer, ranked second or third in the standings for 10 consecutive weeks, and Martin Truex Jr. was on the Chase bubble.
So everything seemed somewhat normal headed into Richmond, where the Sept. 7 race would end with the top 12 drivers advancing into the Chase and Montoya probably taking the Furniture Row job.
Then came the late-race shenanigans by MWR to get Truex the final Chase berth. That’s when things really spun out of control.
NASCAR came down hard with sanctions, including Truex’s removal from the Chase field in favor of Stewart teammate Ryan Newman.
Longtime Waltrip sponsor NAPA Auto Parts, citing its belief in “fair play,” then said it would pull its multimillion-dollar sponsorship from MWR at the end of the year. The NAPA decision could force MWR to lay off up to 100 employees and fold its No. 56 car.
So Truex went from driving his guts out in an effort to make the Chase to an unwitting participant in a team scandal to being potentially out of work eight weeks from now.
Bowyer, one of the most popular drivers in the garage, is now feeling the ire of fans for his role in the Richmond scandal and his promising season has fallen apart after two mediocre races to start the Chase, maybe because of all the pressure. He’s 10th in the standings, essentially out of title contention, and sponsor 5-Hour Energy said it will decide after the season if it will continue its relationship with MWR.
Then 5-Hour President Scott Henderson took a peculiar stance Sunday at New Hampshire, where he seemed to question NASCAR chairman Brian France’s decision not to punish Penske Racing the same way it did MWR for trying to manipulate the Richmond race to get Joey Logano into the Chase, and perhaps for expanding the Chase field to 13 drivers to accommodate Jeff Gordon. Bowyer and Gordon had an issue late last season that took Bowyer out of title contention.
“There’s a lot of talk about integrity,” Henderson said. “When the guy who’s in charge can say, ‘I can do whatever I want and I’m going to do it and I just did,’ I wonder about integrity. I want to make sure we can win in this sport, OK?”
Should 5-Hour bail at the end of the year, Bowyer will be in far worse shape than Truex. At least Truex has some time to look for a job. In December, there won’t be any jobs to be had.
And speaking of jobs, there’s really only one seat open right now — the Furniture Row vacancy that Montoya turned down.
Sometime after Richmond, Penske Racing picked up the phone and lured Montoya back to IndyCar. Maybe they wanted the former Indianapolis 500 winner to complement their open-wheel organization, or maybe the Penske folks wanted to clear the path to Colorado for longtime company man Sam Hornish Jr.
Currently leading the Nationwide championship race, Hornish is at another crossroads in his career. Penske is full at the Cup level with Keselowski and Logano, and it appears the team wants Hornish’s Nationwide seat for 19-year-old Ryan Blaney, who grabbed his first career victory Saturday night at Kentucky.
Whatever Penske’s motives were for hiring Montoya, Furniture Row didn’t seem to have an overwhelming interest in Hornish and headed back to the drawing board last week with designs on hiring a young driver. It’s the same path Harry Scott, the new owner of Phoenix Racing, and Brandon Davis, owner of Swan Racing, want to go with their teams.
That doesn’t leave much hope for 46-year-old Jeff Burton, a 21-race winner, or former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, who turned 49 this year.
Both are looking for jobs. They may soon be joined by Truex and Hornish — and everyone is left speculating how this will all shake out.