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As NASCAR Turns: Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer Highlight Suddenly "Silly" Season

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The best thing possible happened to NASCAR’s high-drag, highly destructive to competition package this week. As of Wednesday afternoon, nobody officially cares anymore. The past 24 hours has been an onslaught of news, from Danica Patrick’s contract extension to the demise of two-car Michael Waltrip Racing.

For Patrick, the emergence of Nature’s Bakery was paired with a longtime contract extension to keep her behind the wheel of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet. She’ll run there through at least 2018 despite zero top-5 finishes in her first 105 career starts. By comparison, teammate Kevin Harvick sits as the reigning Cup Series champion, posting 30 top-5 finishes in his first 59 starts running with SHR.

Nature’s Bakery itself doesn’t care. The five-year-old company, whose revenue was reported to be $100 million for 2014 is clearly going “all in” with its next level of growth based on Patrick’s ability to be a spokesperson off the track. Her visibility with soon-to-be-former sponsor GoDaddy.com, culminating in a series of Super Bowl commercials, makes her one of the most recognizable racecar drivers in the country. What better way to get to the next level in business than by pairing with a “celebrity” spokesperson?

That brand won’t be affected if Patrick finishes 35th each week instead of fifth. For Patrick, that’s a blessing and a curse within an SHR organization that has another driver struggling within its four-car ranks: co-owner Tony Stewart. What’s more important now that Patrick’s sponsorship future is secure; getting the three-time champ, who’s also the manager of this multi-car giant, on track or getting the underperforming No. 10 more competitive?

SHR likes Patrick and there are plenty of reasons why — they come in the size of dollar bills. It’s great for her future as a millionaire but you wonder how much better she can be as a driver during a season where the other two SHR cars (Harvick and Kurt Busch) are challenging for the championship. Patrick now gets six years to rise to that level where someone else in her position elsewhere might get six races. It’s the name of the game in the sport these days — finding money to race gets you farther than your on-track results — but that doesn’t mean we all have to like it.

As for Michael Waltrip Racing, the demise of the organization beyond 2015 finishes off a slow death that’s been brewing for over two years. Two, of course also is the number of times MWR got caught with a major cheating scandal. Their first, occurring prior to the 2007 Daytona 500 when jet fuel was discovered, disrupted their growth for three years, scarred the Toyota brand and left their reputation an uphill climb. The Spingate incident six years later, one where Clint Bowyer spun out intentionally in order to try and ensure Martin Truex Jr.’s slot in the Chase, finished off any hope the organization could one day grow into a title contender.

MWR hasn’t made the Chase since, a track record that left sponsors and investor/co-owner Rob Kauffman unable to feel comfortable over the long term. Truex and sponsor NAPA left, cutting the team to two cars and they were never replaced; another driver, Brian Vickers has endured an onslaught of health problems due to blood clots, currently sidelined for the rest of the 2015 season.  It was clear the upward path of mobility was no longer there and finally Kauffman, the financial brains behind the operation, decided to pull the plug.

Where does everyone go from here? Kauffman, Waltrip’s co-owner and financial arm, will be headed to Chip Ganassi Racing for 2016. Bowyer becomes the sport’s most prized free agent, likely headed to Furniture Row Racing as that team undergoes a long-awaited expansion. And Waltrip? The TV broadcaster must now hope FOX retains his analyst role while he’s forced to restart ownership from scratch.

“We just have the perfect workplace, and unfortunately in 2016, we’re not going to be racing there,” he said. “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.”

Just think of a mid-level baseball team – say, the Cleveland Indians – having to stop, disband their franchise and sell everything they own piecemeal. That’s what is happening for Waltrip right now and you have to feel for him.

What happens to his former driver jumpstarts this edition of Through the Gears as we try and “forget” Michigan and remember the four biggest storylines facing the sport…

FIRST GEAR: The MWR Impact on the Chase Race

Today’s news for MWR comes at a critical time in NASCAR’s playoff race. Bowyer was the biggest casualty from Sunday’s Michigan 400-miler; a mid-race wreck left him in 41st place, leaving him as the last driver currently inside the Chase on points. A win by someone outside the current field of 16 will drop Bowyer out. Aric Almirola, the first driver below him is only 23 points behind.

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The official dissolution of MWR is bound to be a distraction for Bowyer and the No. 15 team going forward. So will be any announcement of Bowyer’s future plans, a decision that could come as soon as this weekend at Bristol. With 2016 closing in rapidly it’s not prudent for Bowyer to wait around a few weeks now that the door has closed on following co-owner Kauffman to Chip Ganassi Racing.

That opens an opportunity for Almirola as well as Kasey Kahne to sneak into the Chase while Bowyer deals with a circus. But they’re not the only ones potentially affected. CGR is dealing with getting Kauffman’s deal done and their two-car organization is in the dark about the future. How will that adjust preparations for Jamie McMurray as he prepares for his first-ever Chase? Or how will Furniture Row handle potential expansion at the same time they have their best shot ever for a championship with Truex Jr.?

It’s hard to say. Suddenly, though the final spots in this year’s playoff just got a whole lot more interesting.

SECOND GEAR: Bye-Bye, High-Drag. Hello… 2015 Rules?

The big news has pushed the utter failure of the high-drag aerodynamics package for NASCAR to the back burner. At Michigan, Matt Kenseth dominated the race, leading 146 laps and at one point had a lead of well over 13 seconds. A mysterious debris caution may have been the only thing stopping the No. 20 car from lapping the field; meanwhile, cars behind him ran single file as loose conditions kept passing to an absolute minimum.

Garage chatter after the race ranged from “no comment” to “never again.” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell all but confirmed the combination would not reappear this week, quickly killing the grand experiment while leaving the low downforce package used at Kentucky the front-runner to be used in 2016.

So why aren’t we seeing low downforce utilized in this year’s Chase? It’s rough to go back to the normal 2015 rules package, one that reduced competition to the point we experimented with aerodynamics in the first place. But it’s unfair to teams like Kevin Harvick, Truex, Jimmie Johnson and others who have dominated the season to this point to suddenly have to scrap the millions they’ve put into a rules package that was supposed to be used for the playoffs. What if the NFL changed rules a week before the Super Bowl? Everyone involved, from fans to players would be furious. It’s a tough call for NASCAR to keep the 2015 rules but also the right one.

THIRD GEAR: Is Gibbs for Real?

The return of that rules package for the Chase also makes it difficult to determine just how strong Joe Gibbs Racing is compared to the rest of the field. JGR won again at Michigan, their sixth victory in eight races, and is running a level above the competition on paper right now. Here’s the problem though; three of those wins were with rules that won’t be in effect during the 10-race playoff stretch.

That leaves Sonoma, a road course where Kyle Busch dominated; Kentucky, a low downforce package where Busch has a history of running well; and Loudon, featured in the Chase but a track where the rest of JGR struggled behind a red-hot Busch. So are these stats a bit of “smoke and mirrors” for the final 10-race stretch? JGR has struggled on intermediate tracks with the old rules and five of the final 10 races are on 1.5-milers. I’m not saying they haven’t improved but beware; this four-car team may be peaking before the playoffs rather than in it.

FOURTH GEAR: The Emergence of Austin

The feel-good story from Michigan was the run of Austin Dillon, coming from the back of the field after an engine change to post his best career finish (fourth) driving the No. 3 car. Since earning the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500, Dillon has largely underachieved while trying to fill the shoes of a number once owned by a legend. Dale Earnhardt Sr. Dillon clearly is not, but he’s also shown flashes of consistency on the circuit, completing 10,488 laps as a rookie (second best in Cup) while keeping his nose clean. The midseason pairing of him and crew chief Slugger Labbe seems to have shaken off a slump; the youngster needed someone with better chemistry on top of the pit box.

Will Dillon win before the year is out? Probably not. But this run is a sign things will be looking up for what is supposed to be Richard Childress Racing’s premier operation come 2016.

OVERDRIVE

Greg Biffle and his Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 team used to be a dominant force at Michigan. This year? He posted an average finish of 29.5 in two races. My, how mighty RFR has fallen… Rumors are popping up that Sam Hornish Jr. will not be back with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2016. Adding the freed-up Bowyer will be a longshot for RPM but how about the other Michael Waltrip Racing driver, David Ragan? Ragan has done well substituting for Vickers in the No. 55, was paired with Ford for several years (RFR) and has put himself in position for one last Chase-contending opportunity… Timmy Hill and Premium Motorsports were embarrassing at Michigan. The No. 98 leaked oil all over the track, then saw part of the oil cooler/pan come right off to cause a debris caution. At Indianapolis the car was literally falling apart coming to the green. It’s admirable the team is trying to run the distance but their existence is a reminder of how difficult it’s been these days for NASCAR to find teams to fill the 43-car grid.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Danica Patrick photo by Getty Images, all other photos by Action Sports, Inc.