A “split-second decision.” In the midst of one of the harshest penalties handed down in NASCAR’s modern era — or perhaps ever — a “split-second decision” was team owner Michael Waltrip’s explanation for his team’s late-race Richmond strategy, a domino effect of choices Saturday that intentionally manipulated the postseason of an entire sport. Through the direction of Michael Waltrip Racing executive Ty Norris, who is now indefinitely suspended, along with the words of a crew chief, Brian Pattie, one “split second” surely produced a tornado’s worth of catastrophic damage.
The final 10 laps of NASCAR’s regular season finale produced an intentional caution along with two dives by MWR’s Nos. 15 and 55 cars in an effort to get the organization’s No. 56 Toyota and Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. It was the most brazen and blatant example of team orders this sport has ever seen. It’s an insulting comment to common sense, as the way in which these actions played out speaks of a week-long commitment to achieving goals by any means possible; teams, after all, don’t just throw races of this magnitude on the fly.
NASCAR clearly wasn’t fooled. The sanctioning body’s reaction in the midst of backlash on social media, the radio and through the mouths of television analysts was both swift and severe. MWR was fined $300,000, a new record for the sanctioning body towards one organization, Norris indefinitely suspended and its three teams and drivers, Truex, Clint Bowyer (No. 15) and Brian Vickers (No. 55), hit with 50-point penalties.
The consequences find Truex’s playoff berth — one he had “earned” seemingly through a stroke of luck just 48 hours prior — revoked and a Scarlet Letter placed on the organization that will be near impossible to erase. The Chase replacement, Ryan Newman, sits pretty; he was the man set to win at Richmond before Bowyer’s spin threw the race and the Chase into a state of disarray. Righting the wrong this quickly is unprecedented in scope; it’s like stripping wins from a college football program in-season, then taking it out of a BCS bowl game a mere six days out.
“NASCAR has always taken very seriously its responsibility to maintain, for the most part, its credibility,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton in explaining the ruling. “I say, for the most part because we get the fact that’s subjective to fans and others in the industry. It’s a sport, and it’s got a lot of fun attached to it. Every now and then, it gets out of bounds and we have to bring it back in order to maintain credibility.”
The question now is whether this decision was enough to keep the sport’s tenuous hold on national self-respect. Fans do not watch NASCAR purely for the “fun” factor — that’s what TV sitcoms are for. There’s a competitive aspect; in particular, the impression that the race they’re watching is run fairly and without bias towards one team or organization. As I wrote elsewhere, the issue of having teammates work together within a sport predicated on individual success has been building. It’s too late to strike down the superpowers built by MWR, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and so many other three-to-four-car organizations that have made this situation a reality. The sport can only make the penalty for collusion so fierce that no one will ever dare think about doing it again.
To NASCAR’s credit, this penalty is enough to make MWR regret the “split-second decision,” as it has cost the organization a valuable Chase bid and the $5 million or so that potentially comes with it. But the cost can’t be measured in terms of dollar signs alone. With 10 laps remaining, Richmond incorporated everything that was right about the sport: a scintillating charge to first by Newman, who needed to win to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs. Further back, Jeff Gordon, fighting for a Chase spot and his own relevancy, was making a valiant effort to claw through the top 10 as well. Drama, as is typical during the regular season finale, was high; in a down year, where passing has been at a premium with the new Gen-6 car, the sport had a solid race to hang its helmet on entering the playoffs. Much-needed momentum was at hand and at just he right moment.
Instead, Bowyer’s spin, combined with team orders for Vickers to pit, changed that focus. A final restart, one that second-place Carl Edwards jumped, was icing on the proverbial cake. It was the best race of the season in some ways — yet many left the track or flipped the channel feeling cheated. Now, the 2013 version of the Chase will be forever tainted.
I think there’s one thing we can all agree on going forward: this type of debacle can never happen again. At this point, repairing the damage done is tough enough.
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on the effects and questions surrounding this ruling:
FIRST GEAR: Why wasn’t Bowyer penalized?
Sure, that tagline looks like a mistake. On paper, Bowyer was docked 50 regular-season points along with crew chief Pattie being placed on probation. It’s the same consequence each of his teammates received, keeping things equal across the board.
Except, in all reality, it isn’t. Truex’s penalty finds him out of the Chase. Bowyer, with such a cushion on 11th place, remains squarely in the playoffs. He still sits just 15 points from a title, despite likely playing a role in manipulating said championship and the drivers in it. NASCAR claimed the penalties were limited, in part because only circumstantial evidence surrounded the Bowyer spin. It’s true that while anyone with a modicum of common sense could see the deception, what the sport has against him wouldn’t stand up under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” doctrine in a court of law.
Still, you would think the harsh terms handed out to Bowyer’s teammates — who were simply pawns in this whole mess — just doesn’t seem right considering the driver’s current comfy spot in the playoffs. Gordon agreed, tweeting his displeasure squarely towards Bowyer’s “guilt free” Chase going forward. (It’s worth noting the two have a history over the past two years, as they have a habit of playing on-track bumper cars.) MWR’s refusal to appeal across the board is in itself a statement, too. Why accept and move on if you believe you’re not guilty?
Chances are, with drivers’ habit of self-policing, that Bowyer’s title hopes will be taken away on-track. But it shouldn’t take two wrongs to make a right.
SECOND GEAR: Ryan Newman’s second chance?
It’s unlikely Newman, over the long run, will play a role in the 10-race championship. He’s a “lame duck” driver, announced to drive the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing on Monday. Stewart-Haas Racing has spent the season a step behind its engine and chassis vendor, Hendrick Motorsports, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. But with his valiant drive Saturday night, the capper on a sizzling summer, it’s only fair the No. 39 team gets its chance.
“Our goal is to win each and every one of these last 10 races,” Newman said before reentering the Chase. “I feel that we have the potential to. I want to do it for myself, my team, my sponsors and everybody involved, especially all of the things that we went through and fought through to get back to where we were on Saturday night and to be in a position within seven to go to race our way in. These guys deserve it.”
In a sense, Newman now has nothing to lose — a spark that could pay off if he carries the momentum through the first few Sundays.
THIRD GEAR: Why not Jeff Gordon?
The most popular comment I’ve seen since the ruling concerns Gordon. The shenanigans pulled in the race’s latter stages almost certainly kept the four-time champ out of the Chase. Solidly a top-10 car at Richmond, Gordon was pinned on the race’s final restart, watching helplessly as a window of opportunity closed via Vickers and Bowyer sitting patiently, dawdling on pit road and throwing the Chase roster to whom they saw fit.
There was some talk of expanding the Chase field, perhaps to as many as 14 teams so Gordon would not be unfairly penalized. But in this case, there were so many missed opportunities for the hard-luck Hendrick Chevy. Five DNFs — four for wrecks — are nearly impossible to overcome. Gordon was lucky to be in position in the first place. Not having such a presence in the Chase is a huge loss, and one that was easily preventable by NASCAR brass. Just add a driver to the postseason; how hard can it be? IndyCar did so for its Indianapolis starting field nearly two decades ago during the IRL/CART standoff and everyone accepted the situation. The longer both sides wait for a compromise …
FOURTH GEAR: Expect the sport to try and move on quickly
Everyone has different opinions on what happened. But this point is one we can all agree on: No sport worth its weight wants the word “cheating” associated with it. What’s acceptable or not going forward is a long-term plan that can be addressed in the offseason. For NASCAR, Sunday’s first Chase race at Chicagoland can’t get here soon enough.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles