Michael Waltrip Racing to lose NAPA sponsorship at year’s end

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In the wake of Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempted manipulation of the race finish at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 7, NAPA Auto Parts has announced that it will leave the team after this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Last week, NAPA and fellow MWR sponsor 5-Hour Energy expressed their disappointment at MWR’s role in the Richmond scandal, with NAPA saying it would hold a review of its sponsorship with the team.

NAPA posted the following statement on its Facebook page this morning regarding their decision to leave:

NAPA-backed driver Martin Truex Jr. was knocked out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after NASCAR heavily penalized the team with points deductions for all three drivers, probation for their crew chiefs, a $300,000 fine, and an indefinite suspension for general manager Ty Norris.

Clint Bowyer (who is backed by 5-Hour Energy) spun out with seven laps to go at Richmond to bring out the caution, while fellow MWR driver Brian Vickers was ordered to pit in the closing laps to give up his track position. Both of those moves, according to NASCAR, were made to help Truex get into the post-season.

But while NASCAR delivered a swift judgment with their penalties of MWR, the fact still remains that MWR has suffered its biggest post-Richmond blow today, as major sponsors such as NAPA are the life blood of the sport.

In a statement, team co-owner Michael Waltrip said that as the owner, he takes full responsibility for the actions of the team.

“I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond,” he said. “NASCAR met with the competitors in Chicago and we all know how we are expected to race forward.”

A statement for the entire team was also released, in which MWR writes that it “respects” NAPA’s decision to part ways with the team.

“There is no doubt, the story of Michael Waltrip Racing begins with NAPA Auto Parts, but there are many more chapters yet to be written,” the team said. “MWR has the infrastructure and support of Toyota for three teams plus three Chase-caliber, race-winning drivers.

“With the support of our corporate partners, we are preparing to field three teams in 2014. MWR is a resilient organization capable of winning races and competing for the championship and that remains our sole focus.”

NAPA has had a working relationship with Waltrip since 2001, and served as his primary sponsor for his two Daytona 500 victories in ’01 and 2003. They also joined him for his creation of Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007, and stayed on to sponsor Truex when he replaced Waltrip as a full-time driver in 2010.

But while the team still plans on staying a three-car franchise, NAPA’s departure would seem to make that plan, currently, a very iffy one.

If they can’t replace the lost money, the consequences could be disastrous. In that situation, the AP’s Jenna Fryer writes that a group of nearly 100 employees could be facing layoffs. Additionally, Truex could find himself out of a ride as well.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.