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MWR Done After Season; Drivers On The Market

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 19 2015
Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip will be going in separate directions next season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip will be going in separate directions next season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Michael Waltrip Racing will cease full-time competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2016, immediately making drivers Clint Bowyer and David Ragan full-fledged free-agents.

sprint-logo-08Rob Kauffman, co-owner of MWR, and Bowyer announced Wednesday the parties mutually have agreed to separate at season’s end. Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry, is winless and 15th in Cup points after 23 races as the series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race.

Kauffman – who also will exit MWR at season’s end – confirmed the organization will field its No. 15 Toyota for Bowyer and No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Camry for Ragan from its facility in Cornelius, N.C., for the remainder of the 2015 season.

“This decision was made after weighing several different options and scenarios,” Kauffman said. “I felt it was important to make an announcement as soon as we had clarity, so that is what we are doing today. I want to thank all of our staff, partners, sponsors and fans for all their effort and support over the years.

“Clint Bowyer has done a lot for MWR since joining us in 2012 and we appreciate the energy and effort he has given the organization. After many discussions, Clint and I agreed we would go our separate ways at the end of the season and I wish him well in whatever direction he pursues.”

Waltrip addressed the issue in his role as NASCAR analyst on FOX Sports 1’s coverage of Wednesday night’s UNOH 200 presented by ZLOOP Camping World Truck Series event at the half-mile Bristol track.

“Well, it’s a sad day for MWR obviously,” Waltrip said. “I love the culture we’ve built there. Our sponsors _ they’re not sponsors; they’re partners. And our employees are our teammates. We just have the perfect workplace, and unfortunately in 2016, we’re not going to be racing there. My hope is somebody wants to have a really nice shop full of really cool people that work together well and want to have a race team and we can provide that for them.

“Rob is going to be a part of Chip Ganassi Racing going forward. Rob and I are best buddies. He’s done an amazing job of stabilizing MWR in the beginning and then we raced for a championship _ finished second in 2012 (with Bowyer). So, my heart goes out to all the employees, all the people that worked at MWR. Hopefully, somebody wants to have a team and they can have it right there at our place.”

Reports surfaced on July 30 that Kauffman had agreed to purchase an interest in Sprint Cup rival Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which fields Chevrolet SS Cup entries for Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, has been affiliated with Toyota and Toyota Racing Development since launching his Cup organization in 2007. Kauffman joined Waltrip that year as the team’s primary financial backer.

MWR downsized from three teams to two following the 2013 season when penalties before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship knocked the team of Martin Truex Jr. out of the 10-race postseason field.  That prompted NAPA, Truex’s primary sponsor, to end its association with the organization and led to Truex’s move to Furniture Row Racing.

Bowyer scored the most recent of his eight career Cup wins for MWR at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2012. He is among a handful of drivers who must either score a win in the next three Cup races at Bristol, Darlington Raceway and/or Richmond International Raceway to secure a spot in the Chase.

Eleven drivers have qualified for the Chase with wins as long as they start the next three races and remain in the top-30 in points _ Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

The five remaining drivers on the Chase Grid have to either visit Victory Lane or stay high enough in the point standings to avoid getting bumped by a new winner outside the top-16. Those drivers are McMurray (70 points above the cutoff line), Paul Menard (plus-61), Ryan Newman (plus-56), Jeff Gordon (plus-55) and Bowyer (plus-23).

Winless drivers who have won at Bristol in the past and have yet to earn Chase berths are Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. A currently winless driver who wins at Bristol would clinch a spot if he/she is 97 points ahead of 31st place. No driver who remains winless after Bristol will clinch a spot.

With that tumultuous scenario staring him in the face this weekend, Bowyer addressed his lame duck status at MWR.

“I want to thank Michael, Rob and everyone at Michael Waltrip Racing that made these past four years special,” said Bowyer, a 36-year-old native of Emporia, Kan. “After extensive discussions with Rob and MWR, we came to the point that we mutually agreed our paths in the future just didn’t align but I think we all agreed on the next steps in a very professional manner.

“I am looking forward to what future opportunities may come but for now we have a championship to pursue in 2015 and we owe it to every one of our sponsors, partners, employees and fans to deliver on and off the track.”

In pursuit of what would be his third Chase berth with MWR, Bowyer has scored only one top-five and nine top-10 finishes this season. Prior to joining MWR, Bowyer spent eight years at Richard Childress Racing, and won the Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series championship in 2008.

Ragan, meanwhile, has wheeled the No. 55 in place of Brian Vickers, who has been sidelined for most of 2015 while recovering from a re-occurrence of blood clots.

“I am grateful for the opportunity that Michael Waltrip Racing and Toyota have provided me this year,” Ragan said in a statement. “I have worked hard to be a good teammate and spokesperson for all of our sponsors, and as a team we have collectively improved our performance from the beginning of the season. I look forward to staying focused and trying to win a race this season for Aaron’s and everyone at MWR.

“Going forward I will be working hard to secure a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series. At 29-years-old, I feel my best years are in front of me.”

A native of Unadilla, Ga., Ragan has scored two Cup wins since joining the series as the highly-regarded replacement for Mark Martin in Fords fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. Ragan was the 2007 NASCAR Busch (now XFINITY) Series Rookie of the Year.

Waltrip, younger brother of three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, has experienced a star-crossed NASCAR career. Michael scored his first Cup victory while driving for seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500 _ the February race in which Earnhardt was fatally injured in a last-lap crash. In addition to starting his racing organization, Waltrip also has established himself as a colorful/offbeat NASCAR television personality.

Waltrip reiterated that Wednesday’s announcement at Bristol was particularly bittersweet.

“Our first race was here (BMS) in 1994 with Jeff Green,” Waltrip said. “We towed in here with Rodney Silver, a flatbed trailer, unloaded our car and ran third that day. We made the Daytona 500 with Kenny Wallace in a car we built in Sherrills Ford (N.C.) behind my house. That grew to Michael Waltrip Racing and we raced for a championship, like I said _ Chase berths, race wins. I’m thankful. I’m happy. It’s a great run that we’ve had. We’ll just see what’s next.

“My family has been a part of NASCAR for almost five decades and I plan on being a part of it for years to come. I would not have had the opportunity to start this journey without so many great partners, sponsors and employees and I want to thank each of them for making Michael Waltrip Racing a reality.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 19 2015
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