One door closes for Brian Vickers while another one opens for Martin Truex?
With a pair of announcements on Monday, Michael Waltrip Racing's miserable second half continued, deepening the trouble facing the embattled race team. Brian Vickers, signed earlier this year to run the Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota for the next three years, was diagnosed with a recurrance of the blood clots that sidelined the driver a few years ago. Meanwhile, the team shrank to a two car outfit in 2014, involving layoffs for dozens of employees. The aftershocks of Richmond continue to reverberate through the team and it's anyone's guess as to how far the impacts may go.
A few weeks prior, Brian Vickers was on top of the world. He won the first race at New Hampshire after a number of good runs for the team. With Mark Martin leaving the team to finish out the season for Tony Stewart, Vickers was offered the chance to drive the #55 team on a weekly basis. Just weeks short of his 30th birthday, Brian signed a three year deal that would put him behind the wheel for years to come. But the return of blood clots throw those plans into doubt. He was first diagnosed with clots in 2010 when they were discovered in his legs and near his lungs. He missed the remainder of that season and only returned to prominence earlier this year thanks to his run in New England.
The issue facing Vickers right now is even more complicated. The treatment for blood clots is generally a regimen of blood thinners along with increased physical activity in order to prevent future clots. After a period of time, the patient is taken off of the medication and monitored for potential recurrences of the condition. If the clots return, the patient generally is placed back on medication, potentially for the rest of their lives. There are some surgical options if the exact location and source of the clotting can be located but surgery is a secondary option in thrombosis treatment.
Why does this matter for Vickers? The medications used to treat blood clotting all fall into a general category known as anti-coagulants. Their entire purpose is to prevent blood from clotting; that includes blood clotting needed to survive. If Vickers were to be injured in an accident, his body would be unable to perform the basic kinds of clotting needed to prevent catastrophic blood loss. Even after a patient stops taking the medication it takes time before the body is able to resume normal clotting after a skin puncture. He's already gone the medication and exercise route and yet the clots have returned within a few short years. Only he and his physician know for sure but there's a very real chance he'll be fighting this battle for years to come.
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Michael Waltrip Racing doesn't have years. In fact, they may not even have months. NAPA Auto Parts, a company stuck by Waltrip's side for over a decade, bailed after the events at Richmond. The speed at which they left suggests the company already had buyer's remorse on renewing with MWR and appreciated the opportunity to cut ties Richmond provided. Truex lost his Chase spot thanks to NASCAR's 50 point penalty. Aaron's and 5 Hour Energy, the other two major MWR sponsors, are sticking with the team but another incident could send one or both heading for other teams (or out of NASCAR entirely). The team's continued existence depends on A) running clean; and B) running well. They need to show to potential sponsors that they've put the events of Richmond behind and are a good investment opportunity for advertisers moving forward.
Solid interview from FoxSports with Michael Waltrip, post-Richmond
Vickers himself must frustrated beyond belief. He left powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports years ago because he wanted the opportunity to be the franchise player for the newly formed Red Bull Racing. He dealt with equipment that had no business showing up at the track that first year, with he and teammate A.J. Allmendinger failing to qualify for 32 out of a possible 72 races that first season. He helped elevate the entire team and was poised to become a legitimate championship contender before his last bout with blood clots. His return from those medical issues lasted only a year before Red Bull pulled out of the sport entirely. He's spent the last two years driving scattered Cup races for MWR and running for a Nationwide title with Joe Gibbs Racing.
2014 was to be his best chance at competing for a Cup championship and now he's back facing the same medical problems that sidelined him for over six months last time.While he survived the 2014 season, those issues came back during the offseason and sidelined Vickers for the first two races of 2015. That recovery period was shorter than his prior absence but it's impossible to predict what the future holds. There's no ignoring the reality that the treatment of blood clots is a tricky business. It's particularly tricky for someone as young as Vickers who's already been treated for them once before.
The health issues also highlight the difficult decision now put before Michael Waltrip Racing. Yes, his health is the primary issue. But with the race team contracting from three to two teams, Waltrip and co-owner Rob Kauffman also have to consider what's best for the hundreds of other employees that depend on their business for their financial livelihood. Displacing a driver for medical issues is a PR nightmare- but can the team afford to wait indefinitely to see how Vickers responds to another round of blood thinning treatment?
Truex signed on to drive the Furniture Row #78 but hasn't had the kind of success that either he or the team expected from that partnership. Mark Martin has passed on the team before and truthfully the parting was a mutual one. Other veteran drivers such as Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte might have interest in the ride but neither has had much success of late. MWR could dip into Toyota's well of developmental drivers, but is Brett Moffitt ready for the pressure of driving a Waltrip Cup car indefinitely?
All things being equal, Truex would be the ideal candidate to drive the #55 in Vickers' absence. He's already familiar with the team and the equipment. Until the mess at Richmond, he'd improved his final series points position every year since joining MWR in 2010. He broke his winless streak earlier this season at Sonoma and has been in contention for wins elsewhere. He's a known quantity to Toyota as well and the manufacturer would have little trouble in continuing to support the driver. But for Truex to stay he would likely demand a long-term commitment in return from MWR; specifically, to remain the #55 driver if and when Vickers was ready to return. After the chaos of the past few weeks, that's an entirely reasonable position for him to take. Yet it's also one the team would take enormous heat for in public.
Had Waltrip moved in 2013, he could have already had Truex in place. He had the opportunity to move Martin to the #55 as soon as Vickers left the car that year. Waltrip owed nothing to NAPA at that point; the sponsor had already announced its departure. They could have enabled sponsor Aaron's to get to know Truex and let the #55 run at the tail end of the field. It could have bought the team time it so desperately needed.
It also would have provided Vickers with more time to deal with his medical issues and to see what his long term future in NASCAR really was. By the time he was ready to return to the track full time the team will have had months to lay the groundwork for a new sponsor, potentially one that enabled the team to return to three full time cars. It's not best possible scenario for the team or the drivers but it's far better than what the end result was.