Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday September 20, 2013
If you’ve ever read Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” you remember that moment of fear when the narrator realizes that the sharpened scimitar is dropping closer to him with every swing. Back and forth, back and forth, and each time falling just a fraction of an inch closer until finally it’s able to deliver a fatal blow.
It’s kind of like that in NASCAR right now. Just as everyone thinks it’s safe to move on from The Spin, the pendulum swings again, making another cut. The latest swing was NAPA’s announcement that they’ll leave Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 car at the end of the season.
The auto parts retailer posted the following to fans on their Facebook page: “After thorough consideration, NAPA has made the difficult decision to end its sponsorship arrangement with Michael Waltrip Racing effective December 31, 2013. NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR. We remain supportive of the millions of NASCAR fans and will evaluate our future position in motorsports.”
Now, to be fair, it’s hard to blame NAPA for their decision. None of the higher-ups at MWR seemed particularly remorseful or apologetic. As I wrote last week the way the incident is handled by all involved is crucial, and MWR failed to address the situation adequately . (Though Michael Waltrip did finally offer his first actual apology for the incident after NAPA’s announcement…too little, too late.) It’s understandable that a sponsor sinking millions into sponsorship doesn’t want to be associated with a team who unapologetically manipulated the outcome of a race in a manner that could have put another driver in danger.
But does it seem as though the person who’s ultimately gotten the brunt of the punishment doesn’t deserve any of it?
Martin Truex, Jr. lost his Chase berth after The Spin, though he says he had no knowledge of his teammates’ actions. I believe him; he had no reason to know, and the team had no reason to tell him. All Truex did was race as hard as he could to put himself in the best position possible—just like NASCAR reminded the drivers to do in a meeting last weekend in Chicago. He didn’t break any rules, though he was the beneficiary for about five minutes until NASCAR rearranged the points.
NASCAR wasn’t wrong to penalize, but they penalized the wrong person more heavily than the right one. Clint Bowyer, the driver who actually spun on track that night, was penalized, but the pre-reset point deduction did nothing to harm his Chase seeding, and probation…well, everyone knows that has no teeth. If anything, Bowyer should have been the one sitting out the title hunt. If NASCAR has the power to add a driver because of shady circumstances, surely they have the power to delete one if he’s done wrong. But Bowyer is in…and still in the position where he could win the whole thing, while Truex watches the Chase from his driver’s seat without being a part of it.
And now, it’s Truex whose future is in jeopardy. And NAPA didn’t even make the wrong decision.
NAPA has been affiliated with Waltrip for many years, so leaving his team wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. That it happened a week and a half after the scandal speaks to how carefully the sponsor considered their options. And in the end, separating themselves from a team who flaunted the rules as well as good sportsmanship so carelessly isn’t a bad move. Except once again, it’s Truex who’s left to worry about whether another sponsor will step into NAPA’s place with a now-tainted organization. And if one doesn’t (and there are teams without the stigma of underhandedness looking for sponsors), it’s Truex’s job on the line.
Somehow, that doesn’t make this wrong right.
Truex may have been intended as the beneficiary of a plan cooked up by Ty Norris to get him in the Chase, but, because the organization got caught red-handed in the process of executing the plan, and because the organization didn’t immediately take the appropriate steps to stop the bleeding, he’s become the victim instead. Condemn his teammates, certainly condemn Norris and MWR, but Truex was just doing his job, trying to race his way into the Chase honestly. And thanks to the “help” from his teammates, Truex could find himself in the unemployment line. Sure, he’s a Cup winner, but there are other winners still looking for rides and not many rides to be had.
And where does that leave Truex’s fans, who have no doubt spent money on NAPA merchandise, may even have switched to shopping at NAPA stores as a show of loyalty? Ultimately, they could end up cheering for their driver in a subpar ride or a lower series. They didn’t do anything wrong. Their driver didn’t do anything wrong. Why stick with NASCAR, then? The sport can’t afford to lose more fans.
Is there hope for Truex? Well, yes. NAPA is leaving the organization, but they could stick with Truex and back him with another team. There are a few established teams, a few of them upper-tier organizations, who have room to expand if a full-time sponsor of NAPA’s caliber came along, and if NAPA came along with Truex, a two-time Cup winner who has made the Chase, they might well take the bait and buy into a package deal. Not only would the move bring such an organization a dedicated and top-flight sponsor, but it gets them a NASCAR champion driver with wins and a Chase berth at the Cup level-something that not everyone can claim on their resume. They get a likeable driver with at least modest skills and an influx of fans following a proven commodity. Truex is, by accounts, a team player, a decent driver and a heck of a nice guy. Teams could do worse and they know it.
So here’s hoping that NAPA makes one statement by leaving the MWR organization…and a second one by taking their driver with them to another team. That’s the only way the people who should come out on top do so. If NAPA walks away from the driver, it’s just another underscore to Truex being the victim of the scheme engineered to help him. No driver wants to get in the Chase because his teammates tried to stack the deck in his favor. No sponsor wants to be put in the position of defending that kind of “teamwork.” Leaving MWR was a right move, but it was only part of the right move.
And a feel-good story, like the sponsor sticking with their driver, might help stop that fearful scimitar from cutting off something vital and irreplaceable to the sport as a whole.
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