JOLIET, Ill. – Everything could have been handled better from the moment Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond to trigger the biggest credibility crisis in NASCAR history.
That spin started as the well-intentioned desire to help a teammate earn a valuable spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, and with a little honesty, a few deep breaths and some clear thinking, it might have ended there.
Instead, the situation snowballed, and NASCAR quickly had a full-blown scandal on its hands.
So, on the eve of the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, chairman Brian France gathered all the competitors of his family-built series and tersely ordered them to give 100 percent at all times. That’s right, the lasting slogan of this dark chapter for NASCAR will forever be “give 100 percent.” Where did things go so wrong?
• There was no spin on the spin: Bowyer’s attempt to bring out a caution was at minimum poor sportsmanship, but not uncommon in NASCAR. It just happened to be a big race with high stakes and a lot of people watching. His Michael Waltrip Racing crew chief had the bright idea to help Martin Truex Jr. stave off elimination from the Chase, and instructed Bowyer over his radio to “itch” his arm.
Bowyer did have poison oak, but the command was so bizarre it was immediately recognized as an obvious code word. Bowyer also did himself no favors after the race, denying intent during a deer-in-headlights interview on live TV.
NASCAR, apparently unaware of the in-car audio conversation, dismissed as implausible the notion Bowyer might have intentionally spun. That fueled conspiracy theorists.
When audio the next day revealed MWR general manager Ty Norris ordered a confused Brian Vickers to pit late in the race in an attempt to help Truex, NASCAR suddenly had a serious problem.
It’s doubtful, though, the two MWR teams were ever working in concert. Nothing has indicated the players involved were smart enough to successfully execute any level of this conspiracy. And the entire organization went into lockdown for almost 48 hours.
• The wrong penalty was issued: NASCAR wanted to send a message in issuing serious sanctions against MWR, and it did with a $300,000 fine, the indefinite suspension of Norris and kicking Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, the driver who would have made it before Bowyer’s spin.
But Bowyer got off virtually unscathed because NASCAR said it couldn’t prove the spin was deliberate.
That incensed Jeff Gordon, who wanted Bowyer punished for starting the mess.
When Bowyer got off with his title hopes intact, it created two problems NASCAR never saw coming:
• It forced Bowyer and MWR to continue to lie about deliberately spinning because admitting guilt now would earn a retroactive penalty. So Bowyer must continue to deny culpability or risk kissing his championship goodbye. Had NASCAR just docked him six points – the equivalent of the 25-point penalty Dale Earnhardt Jr. received for admitting to intentionally causing a caution in 2004 – he’d be in a deep hole but could try to climb out with a clear conscience.
• In citing Vickers’ late trip down pit road as the smoking gun, NASCAR singled out one of many wink-and-nod practices that goes on all the time between multicar teams. It opened a Pandora’s box and made teams wonder what exactly is legal? NASCAR should have penalized Bowyer and fined MWR at least $1 million – a sum likely close to the bonus sponsor NAPA Auto Parts would have owed the team for Truex making the Chase.
Now that France has expanded the field to 13 drivers to accommodate Gordon, if NASCAR could back up to Monday, the $1 million fine to MWR might have made it easy to accept expanding the field to 14 to accommodate Gordon, Newman and Truex.
• Different Standards: Once Vickers’ action had been singled out, teams all across the garage had to worry. They’d all been trading favors forever and many were at Richmond.
It didn’t take long to discover Joey Logano had help making the Chase – first from Vickers and Bowyer, who in aiding Truex had to help Logano – but also from fellow Ford driver David Gilliland.
Front Row Motorsports offered to have Gilliland move over for Logano during radio discussions about negotiating with deep-pocketed Penske Racing.
The Penske team – referred to as “the whole committee” and “the big dog and all of his cronies” on the Front Row radio – was too smart to get its hands dirty. NASCAR had no evidence of any Penske wrongdoing because the team either did its bidding over digital radio not accessible to the public or communicated directly with the spotter on top of the Richmond roof.
But NASCAR had to do something after hammering MWR, right?
Penske and Front Row got a slap on the wrist with probation and a new rule banning digitial radios and anyone but the spotter from the roof.
While MWR, which was harshly rebuked by sponsor NAPA in the days after its penalty, is hoping this incident doesn’t ruin its team, the only thing Penske Racing has to worry about is finding a new spot for Roger Penske to watch the races.
The one thing NASCAR did get right was defining new “rules of the road” in France’s Saturday meeting. Banned going forward is any sort of action that could be considered as artificially altering the outcome of the race. Drivers now have one job – drive as hard as they can, every lap, from start to finish.
Sometime in the early morning hours Monday, after teammate Matt Kenseth had beaten him to the finish line in the opening Chase race, Kyle Busch noted he’d done everything possible to win the race.
“100 percent,” he shrugged.
One hundred percent, indeed.