Tag: Michael Waltrip

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be Excited About the 2016 NASCAR Season

We’re just a few days away from the return of NASCAR racing for another season. There’s a lot to be excited about, and with good reason. There’s finally a rookie class that looks like it’ll produce a race-winning rookie driver for the first time since 2009. Picking an organization as the “best” team going into the season is problematic- while the usual suspects are almost all good choices for a preseason pick to be the Champion, picking one team that as a whole is the top dog right now is simply not easy.

While all of that is true, and on the one hand you can be excited for the 2016 NASCAR season, here are several reasons why you probably need to scale back that excitement.

Remember the new aero package to reduce downforce, the digital dashboard, and all those other improvements to the cars?

Yeah, probably not. And it’s forgivable if you’ve forgotten all of those changes to the cars, as they haven’t exactly been the talking point of the offseason (hi there, charter franchise system). But, the aero package being run in most races in 2016 was hyped up following Kentucky last year, and will hopefully bring about better racing in 2016.

However, we’ve heard that story before, and it’s rarely ever panned out. The issue isn’t that the setup isn’t conducive to better racing: it’s that the engineers employed by the teams are finding more and more ways to counter any changes that NASCAR makes in order to find that extra millisecond of speed in the cars. While there certainly is a chance that the racing will be better in 2016 (no more 10+ second leads on the intermediate tracks), if a team hits their setup and has an advantage, they’re still going to pull away from the pack.

The 2016 Olympics Impact the TV Schedule

Okay, so this probably should not be a concern, except it is. NASCAR fans have a habit of not being able to find the channel that the race is on, despite the entire schedule being posted on hundreds of websites. After so many complained about not being able to find a race on FOX, FS1, NBC, or NBCSN, with NBC covering the 2016 Olympics over the summer, the Watkins Glen Cup race as well as the Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio and Bristol will be moved to the USA Network, while the Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen will air on CNBC.

While USA is available in more households than NBCSN as of November 2015, no one thinks of the channel as being where NASCAR will be found. Add in that these races were some of the lowest-viewed races in 2015, it’s safe to say right now that the ratings will be absolutely dreadful in 2016.

Bottom line, prepare for NASCAR fans to be complaining incessantly during those race weekends when suddenly NBCSN isn’t showing those races and they can’t find the channel that they’re on. The Olympics are a huge event, and I completely understand the move of NASCAR events to a channel that won’t be showing something related to the Olympics. That won’t stop NASCAR fans from being outraged. Plus, having to remember a different channel for one race is just annoying.

The TV Coverage Is Still Lacking… And Probably Won’t Be Getting (Much) Better in 2016

Warning: This is the long entry in the list.

This is one of those points that you will either agree wholeheartedly with or believe that I am absolutely wrong about. However, the TV coverage last year was absolutely awful, both on Fox and NBC. Fox’s strategy of having The Three Stooges in the commentary booth for their Cup events continued in 2015, as Darrell Waltrip, Larry MacReynolds, and Mike Joy polluted the airwaves through Fox’s 16 Cup races. On the bright side, Jeff Gordon is joining the booth for 2016 as Larry MacReynolds’ replacement, which should hopefully improve the commentary from the booth. The big concern though is that instead of improving the quality of the product being produced by Fox, Gordon will act just like Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.

Their Xfinity Series coverage was made slightly more tolerable than Cup in 2015 by bringing in current Cup Series drivers to provide guest commentary. Having the insight of Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski added at least a new dimension to the broadcasts, though admittedly of the special guest commentators, Danica Patrick was certainly the weakest of the group. Seeing this continue in 2016 is one of the few good things about Fox’s television coverage.

Truck Series coverage is still a disaster in waiting. With a booth of Vince Welch, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip, it’s almost as if Fox Sports has decided to punish NASCAR fans that tune in to the Truck races. The coverage was already bad in 2015, but this trio has absolutely no redeeming qualities.

While I clearly give Fox some flak for their coverage, NBC isn’t innocent. The booth for NBC’s Cup events isn’t nearly as good as it was hyped up to be. It wasn’t necessarily bad. It was just… mediocre. Hopefully year two of NBC’s Cup coverage means that the trio has more time to mesh together and for each member to find their role.

For Xfinity, NBC’s coverage is… dismal. The rotating cast of characters often led to disappointment. Ralph Sheheen, Dale Jarrett, Leigh Diffey, Frank Stoddard, and Ray Evernham rotating in for the Cup commentators simply made things feel disjointed more often than not. Whenever NBC’s “B” team (or “C” team, as it sometimes felt) was calling a standalone Xfinity race, there just wasn’t any excitement; instead of engaging the viewer I sometimes felt like NBC was actively working to drive away viewers. In 2016, I expect this cast to rotate just as much, if not more, for the standalone races.

I’m not even going to really get into the whole “let’s move stuff to FS2 or CNBC or whatnot”. Neither network is innocent at this, and the trend of moving things off a main channel will continue as TV ratings continue their freefall. Get used to either finding these more obscure networks or simply doing without the coverage if you don’t get the channel.

NASCAR Has Now Locked Most Tracks Into 5-Year Agreements

Yep, if you’re one of those people that want to see new tracks added to the Cup schedule… good luck. All of the Cup tracks are now locked into sanctioning agreements with NASCAR through the 2020 season. So no, Iowa isn’t getting a Cup date any time soon, nor is NASCAR going to add more road courses to the Cup schedule (and I’m *definitely* looking forward to that debate cropping up during the Sonoma and Watkins Glen weekends like it always does).

Not that ISC or SMI were ever in much danger of losing a race date, but now it’s basically guaranteed until 2020 unless a track goes bankrupt that no one is losing a date. Get used to the Cup schedule you saw in 2015 because, aside from minor changes due to events like Easter, that schedule is here to stay through 2020. That means two Cup races at Pocono, two races at Texas, two races at New Hampshire, two races at Kansas, zero races at Iowa, pretty much the same Chase schedule, and Homestead holding the season finale for the next five seasons.

So even if these tracks put on absolute snorefests of races this season, they’re even less likely to get booted off the schedule than before

There Are Still Rules That NASCAR Has Not Yet Figured Out

Daytona 500 qualifying is on Sunday. NASCAR is expected to announce their qualifying format for the four “open” spots in Cup for the teams that do not have a charter on Thursday. There’s still no decision on how NASCAR will alter the green-white-checkered finish rule for plate races, how the Can-Am Duel 150 races will determine the 4 “open” spots in the 40 car field, how the four spots will be field if qualifying is canceled, whether there will be a Champion’s Provisional (the belief is that no, there won’t be), and a plethora of other rules. Heck, with the drop to 40 cars in the field now for a Cup race, there’s the expectation that NASCAR will adjust the current point system. Yep, we’re under two weeks to the season’s first race and we have no idea how the points are going to work this year.

And the best part? NASCAR’s probably going to change some stuff around just because they can in the middle of the season. There’s a reason that the joke of NASCAR’s rulebook being written in pencil is a real joke: sometimes, it feels like that is actually true.

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Kauffman, Bowyer Set For New NASCAR Life

News broke Wednesday that Rob Kauffman, majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), was closing in on purchasing Felix Sabates’ stake in Chip Ganassi Racing. (CGR)This will be a duel commentary post taking a look at Kauffman and driver Clint Bowyer’s potential revitalization.

When Kauffman bought into MWR in October 2007 it was assumed an influx of cash might help the organization get back on its feet, or at least get some traction. The process was slow and painful, but in time they did get there. Clint Bowyer finished second in the standings in 2012 with three victories in the season, just about half of the total in the organization’s history.

Then there was the 2013 Richmond Spingate that nearly crushed the organization and probably planted the bug in Kauffman’s ear about greener pastures elsewhere. The team has been average, at best, the past two seasons. The bright spot of the team is the charismatic and funny Bowyer, but he is in essence wasting away during the prime of his career.

If the plan comes to fruition, Kauffman buying into Chip Ganassi Racing, that could be the best thing that ever happened to not only Kauffman or Bowyer, but the sponsors that could be loyal to them and the Ganassi organization. Currently CGR has veteran Jamie McMurray who has quietly been having a solid season in the #1 car and second year man Kyle Larson, who is down in points, but has a very high ceiling given his talent. Pairing Bowyer with those two drivers will help make Bowyer a better driver, rather than comparing notes with a rotating door of drivers that he’s dealt with for most of his time at MWR.

The Ganassi team is on the cusp of getting over the preverbal hump, already having alliances with Hendrick Motorsports, and I would presume Kauffman would bring money to the table for the team to not only expand to three cars, but also invest into more R&D projects.

Not to mention how perfect of a match it could be for Kauffman and his road racing background to be paired with one of the best road racing owners in the business. That could open avenues in other areas of motorsports for the pair, something Kauffman tried to do with Waltrip, but again, he’s Waltrip and he likes to goo things up.

My only hope with Waltrip still owning a team was maybe one day he’d be forced off the airways to either concentrate on his team, or remove the obvious conflict of interest he has each week, but it seems that Kauffman will remove that question from Waltrip. So while I like the move for Kauffman and Bowyer, I dislike it because we’re almost guaranteed more Waltrip on TV. Oh…boy.

Waltrip Setting Stage To Exit NASCAR Ownership

News broke Wednesday that Rob Kauffman, majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), was closing in on purchasing Felix Sabates’ stake in Chip Ganassi Racing. This will be a duel commentary post taking a look at Waltrip in this piece and how ownership has gone for the goofy pitchman.

While all parties are mum on the situation, it is amazing that Waltrip had not been run out of ownership sooner given what his history has been in the position. Waltrip founded his team on the foundation of being a Toyota flag ship for their entry into NASCAR in 2007. It didn’t take long for the goofy pitchman’s luster to start wearing off. At the season opening Daytona 500, the team was found to have used jet fuel in their cars to get an advantage. NASCAR did not look kindly on this infraction handing out suspensions, monetary and points fines, and stripping the teams of their qualifying times. What a great first impression for Toyota into a sport that already had fans annoyed with a non-American company entering into it.

The season would not continue any less smooth as the teams of Waltrip (#55), Dale Jarrett (#44), and David Reutimann (#00) routinely missed races. Reutimann missing 10, Jarrett missing 12, and Waltrip’s team missing 17. This kind of performance ran Jarrett out of the sport after five races in 2008 (planned in advance of the season, but you have to wonder how forced his hand was after 2007), but more importantly left Waltrip on the brink of bankruptcy once sponsors began jettisoning the team.

Enter Kauffman, who brought a boat load of cash to the organization, enough to become majority owner of the team baring Waltrip’s name. The next season was slightly better with Waltrip and Reutimann starting all the races, but the team nearly destroy Michael McDowell’s career before it started by pushing him into the #00 car. By 2009, the #44 team folder with Reutimann returning to the 00 and Waltrip took his last run for a full season in the #55.

The team turned around and hit its stride during this time period with Reutimann collecting wins in 2009 and 2010. The team added Martin Truex Jr into the mix in 2011, then in true Waltrip fashion, unceremoniously tossed Reutimann (a loyal Waltrip guy) to the curb so late in 2011 he could not find a ride and never fully recovered. That opened the door for Clint Bowyer to join the team for 2012 and they were rewarded with three wins from his team and a 2nd place finish in the points.

Just when things looked their brightest in 2013, Waltrip done Waltrip’d himself again. Truex won at Sonoma, fill in Brian Vickers won at New Hampshire, and the team was poised to have Truex and Bowyer in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. During the Richmond race, final regular season race, Bowyer got directions to cause a caution to the benefit of Truex to make the Chase. NASCAR figured out the charade and kicked Truex out of the Chase. That resulted in sponsor NAPA, having been with Waltrip since 2001, leaving the organization (and almost NASCAR) and Truex was left without a ride.

Both last season and this season the team has been average at best, running mid to late 20’s each weekend. This past week saw Toyota be non-committal when asked about MWR’s future, along with longtime supporter Aaron’s on if they would return to the #55 next season.

For Waltrip, he’s a goofy pitchman whose antics helped keep sponsors happy while his performance was in the toilet, but that act I believe has finally worn off. While he’ll still have his gig as FOX Sports talking head, with Kauffman leaving (with Clint Bowyer), it’s hard to believe he has the finances to continue, much less the desire to keep his team afloat.

Commentary: FOX Bets On Wrong Horse In Broadcast Booth

News broke on Thursday that Jeff Gordon will be joining FOX to call Sprint Cup Series races in 2016. Joining him in the booth will be Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip, two originals from when FOX started with NASCAR in 2001. That means Gordon is replacing Larry McReynolds, who will be discarded to the Hollywood Hotel like an empty pizza box.

When I first read the news, I thought “wow what a great pick up of Gordon.” While rough around the edges, I think with more experience this season calling some races he can be something good in the booth. Then it sunk in that the number one reason I don’t like FOX races will remain. That being Darrell Waltrip.

Flashback to 2001 when Waltrip entered the booth for the first time with FOX (can go prior to this when he moonlighted on TNN prior to this) and Waltrip was a breath of fresh air. He was funny, he told stories, and he tried to relate to the average fan. That was great 14 years ago, now it’s just a tired shtick. FOX had the good sense in putting Digger down awhile back, I figured they had the good sense to put old DW down. I guess I was wrong.

All you have to do is just watch the start of a race a hear Waltrip say “boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing!” Nothing says professional sports league like a commentator who uses gibberish words to signal the start of the race. Just watch a football game and listen for Jim Nance to say “whoooooooooo let’s go footballing!” just as the opening kickoff happens.

If you can get past the gibberish, you still have to deal with Waltrip’s obvious bias for some drivers. It’s almost like he’s paid by the number of times he mentions “Dale Earnhardt Jr” or “Danica Patrick.” Then you have the (major) conflict of interest when it comes to his brother, Michael’s team. Never is that team in the wrong for anything it does because that’s his baby brother’s team.

The worst part about this is McReynolds getting the shaft and being sent to be in the looney bin with Chris Myers and Michael Waltrip. And by looney bin, I mean Hollywood Hotel, which shouldn’t be called that since they sent Jeff Hammond off to pasture after last season. McReynolds might have butchered the English language on a daily basis, but his points was facts based and usually correct. He added the right amount of humor and seriousness to the broadcast, whereas Waltrip acts like the dopy sidekick.

Looking over the release one last time there is a slight glimmer of hope, there is no mention of Andy Peetre. This year FOX is using Peetre as a “rules expert” to chime in when there’s a question about a rule. Digger wins as the dumbest thing FOX has pushed on NASCAR fans, but this “rules expert” position is second to him. Peetre literally adds nothing to the broadcast other than to offer Mike Joy bathroom breaks during the broadcast.

Like most things in NASCAR, FOX is taking the two steps ahead, one step back approach to their broadcast booth. Thank goodness NASCAR fans have the option of MRN or PRN to listen while watching the races on mute.

Column: Keselowski, Debuts, Talladega, MWR, and Irvan Returns

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In this week’s column I take a look at the most recent Sprint Cup Series winner, Brad Keselowski, along with the three drivers who made their Cup debuts Saturday under the lights. My two cents on the Michael Waltrip Racing situation that came out Monday. And to round things out I will touch on what a wildcard Talladega is to the Chase and a former Talladega winner is back involved in NASCAR.

It was a very long time coming for Brad Keselowski, who had not won a Sprint Cup Series race in just over a year. His last win was Kansas of last year during his run for the Sprint Cup championship. It has been a big struggle for him and his team all year long. Luck just has not been on their side, some of their own doing (Texas with penalties) and others were just out of his hands. This team is going for broke during the Chase since they are not in it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they pick up another win or two.

It was Kyle Larson who got most of the media attention heading into Charlotte about making his Sprint Cup Series debut. He did not do it alone as Brian Scott and Blake Koch each made their inaugural Sprint Cup races. Of the trio, Scott produced the best finish coming home in the 27th position. Larson was quick and up near the top-10, but his engine expired after completing 247 of the 334 laps, relegating him to a 37th place finish. Koch was a late add to the #95 Leavine Family Racing Ford and ran 216 laps before retiring with a vibration, he finished 38th. Larson is going to be running full-time in 2014, whereas Scott hopes to run a handful of races next season, and Koch’s plans are still unknown at this time. Each has a bright future, but Larson will be the one who garners all the attention.

It’s down to a five man battle for the Sprint Cup championship this year, although you could argue it’s down to two already with five races to go. That’s good because Talladega is up next and the unpredictability of it will definitely shake things up. In the spring Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth were the only Chase drivers to get a top-10 finish. Heck, David Ragan won the race with David Gilliland pushing him. When we say anything can happen, anything can and will happen in the race. The goal of every Chase driver is to survive and hopefully not lose too many points in the process.

The announcement that Michael Waltrip Racing would be reducing the number of full-time teams it fields from three to two is not surprising. There was no way they could secure funding for a full season in such short notice after NAPA informed them they were leaving. What I don’t like is the number of people who will be out of jobs because of the action of a few inside the organization. You can’t tell me from the top (i.e. Michael Waltrip himself) there was no discussions of manipulating the race if push came to shove out there. For a team that is starving for funds, a bonus for a car making the Chase was worth the risks at the time. Now that they have found out what the risks are, they would probably re-think their approach. I hope that driver Martin Truex, Jr., who did nothing but race his ass off into the Chase only to get kicked out, lands a good ride and can bring some of his former MWR colleagues with him.

Something that might have slipped through the cracks last weekend was Ernie Irvan getting back into racing as a car owner for his son Jared starting in 2014. The 15-year old Irvan will compete full-time in the Pro All Star Series South (PASS) that hits tracks like Hickory, South Boston, and Organ County. History lesson for you all is those were former Nationwide Series tracks back in the day. It’s good to see Ernie getting back into the sport after having such a great, albeit short, career that included 15 victories, the 1991 Daytona 500, and what should have been the 1994 title had he not gotten injured at Michigan.

Commentary: Good Intensions Fall Short

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Michael Waltrip Racing was founded in dreams and good intentions when they decided to be the flagship for Toyota and enter the 2007 season full-time. When pressures came to them they panicked and made some poor choices, like the ones they made in Richmond two weeks ago.

Right from their first race there were bad decisions made. Michael Waltrip, driving for himself, was the driver busted for one of the biggest cheating scandal in Daytona 500 history. NASCAR found a fuel additive in his car which prompted them to suspend his crew chief David Hyder, fine Hyder $100,000 and suspended team direct Bobby Kennedy. Waltrip placed blame on unidentified individual or individuals whom he did not fire after it was all said and done. He went on to apologize and life continued in NASCAR.

Flash forward to six years to the situation in Richmond. With their backs against the wall again to get driver Martin Truex, Jr. in the Chase, a few bad eggs spoiled it all for everyone. Driver Clint Bowyer, who was locked into the Chase, mysteriously spun near the end of the race to bring out the caution. That caution helped close up the field so that race leader Ryan Newman, whom Truex was battling for the last wildcard spot, might not win the race. That worked as Newman lost spots on pit road and Carl Edwards won the race.

They also wanted to make sure Joey Logano would not drop out of the top-10 in points, thus being the last wildcard over Truex. So drivers Bowyer and Brian Vickers were ordered to slow on the track and pit multiple times so Logano could gain positions on the track.

General Manager Ty Norris was caught on the radio pleading with Vickers to pit, even though nothing was needed to be done to car. There was no way that this was Norris’ decision alone and there’s no way that Bowyer spun accidently. Once again the pressure was on to perform and MWR went the path of quick success with hopes of not being caught.

Now these actions have finally hit them where it really hurts, sponsorship. Truex’s sponsor NAPA, who was on Waltrip’s car in 2007, decided enough was enough and announced they would not be back with the team. This cuts short their contract with the team by two years and puts the team in an unenviable position of needing to do damage control, find a sponsor, and concentrate on the rest of the season.

Most of the people have cycled through the MWR shop, but one person has remained constant throughout all of these scandals. Team owner Michael Waltrip.

You have to wonder how much of this pushing the envelope comes from him. Even if he has been clueless through both scandals, he is fostering an environment where these actions are happening. If MWR wants to prove to sponsors, NASCAR, and fans that it will be changing, there needs to be a total shift in the MWR environment.

MWR Penalty Reaction

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NASCAR laid down the law Monday by penalizing Michael Waltrip Racing in what the sanctioning body considered manipulation of the outcome of last Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 race at the Richmond International Raceway. The actions in question was a late race spin by driver Clint Bowyer and directions from general manager/spotter Ty Norris to driver Brian Vickers to pit because they needed a point.

What I liked is how NASCAR responded and responded big. My gut feeling at first was nothing much would happen with this and it would be swept up under the rug. Since it gained steam as a national story, then it became possible for something bigger to be done. The penalties fit the crime with the exception of one of those.

The 50 point reduction for Clint Bowyer counts towards his pre-Chase point total. In essence, he is not affected at all by this. I believe that was done because they could never conclusively determine his spin with six laps to go was intentional. Even with audio of cryptic messages from his crew to Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s testimonial, that was not enough to decide 100% Bowyer took one for the team.

It is a bit disappointing on how Michael Waltrip Racing reacted to the penalties. Sure it’s nice they won’t appeal, because that would make it really messy, but in effect MWR and owner Michael Waltrip just piled the blame on Ty Norris and moved on.

Waltrip’s statement was “What occurred on the No. 55 radio at the end of Saturday night’s race in Richmond was a split-second decision made by team spotter Ty Norris to bring the No. 55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase.” I’m going to say it now; that is a bold face lie. In no way was that Norris just winging it on the spotter’s stand to get Vickers in.

There had to have been conversations earlier in the week that laid out what would happened late in a race if Truex was close, but needed help. Norris spent more than a split-second basically begging Vickers to pit. Add to that Bowyer’s crypt radio chatter that almost showed code words between he and crew chief Brian Pattie.

Which brings me to my next point another reason NASCAR had to act was how blatant this whole thing was by Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer spin aside, the Vickers pit talk. They had code words for Bowyer, why not Vickers? If Norris is as questionable as we’re led to believe, why not lie to Vickers and say “yeah, sure, you’re tire is going down” or something like that? Because there was a clear direction of do anything possible to get Truex into the Chase.

It sucks that Truex drove his butt off these past few weeks with a broken wrist just to be slapped in the face, but MWR should have known the consequences when they started trying to play God on the race track.