Never before had NASCAR been put in the position of having to swing its big hammer and knock a driver out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but this week the sanctioning body felt it had no choice.
After two full days of gathering evidence and marathon meetings, NASCAR ruled that Clint Bowyer’s spin with seven laps to go in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond was part of a master scheme by the entire Michael Waltrip Racing organization to assure MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. qualified for the coveted Chase. As a result, NASCAR slapped MWR with a penalty of 50 owner and driver points to each of their three drivers – Bowyer, Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers – that was retroactive to the standings before the determination of the 12-driver Chase field. The penalty was the largest in NASCAR history and bumped Truex Jr. out of the final wild-card spot, which fittingly now belongs to Ryan Newman.
“It is our determination that the MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that.”
NASCAR President Mike Helton said there was no hard evidence that Bowyer intentionally spun his car after he and NASCAR officials reviewed in-car audio to Bowyer from his crew chief Brian Pattie asking him, “Is your arm starting to hurt? I bet it's getting hot in there. Itch it.” Following that conversation, Bowyer’s car spun out. MWR tweeted Tuesday that Bowyer had been suffering from poison oak and needed a steroid shot from the NASCAR care center before the race to help with the pain, thus the suggestion to itch the arm and not for Bowyer to intentionally wreck. The radio communication that proved damning came from MWR General Manager Ty Norris, who also serves as Vickers’ spotter. Norris instructed Vickers to pit so that it would better the track position for Joey Logano, allowing him to knock four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon out of Chase contention and help Truex Jr. claim that final wild-card spot.
“This naturally is a very significant reaction from NASCAR,” Helton said. “As multiple car owners have become a very positive, integral part of this sport, that also comes with the responsibility from NASCAR and also the car owners to maintain a fair and level playing field. We’ve talked about ‘what ifs’ over the years, particularly since the Chase was established, particularly with the evolution of multiple-car teams. And we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve not had any occurrences that required NASCAR to step up as we’ve had to do today.”
In addition to penalizing MWR with the loss of points for each driver, the organization was fined $300,000, the highest dollar amount the sanctioning body has ever levied. It also suspended Norris indefinitely and placed the crew chiefs for Bowyer, Vickers and Truex Jr. on probation until the end of the year.
Team owner Michael Waltrip issued a statement of apology on Monday night. ''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,'' he said. ''We regret the decision and its impact.''
Newman told ESPN that Bowyer called him to apologize shortly after NASCAR’s decision on Monday saying, “he’d been sick to his stomach the last two days” and that he was “frustrated in his situation.”
Newman said he was glad to hear from Bowyer.
“We make poor decisions sometimes when we're frustrated,” Newman said. “I commend him for calling me as a competitor and as a friend; somebody I would have never thought made that decision but did.”
Also pleased with the change of events is the co-owner of Newman’s Stewart-Haas Racing entry, Tony Stewart.
''Obviously, we're very pleased with NASCAR's decision to provide Ryan Newman's rightful place in this year's Chase,'' Stewart said in a statement. ''NASCAR was put in a very difficult position Saturday night at Richmond, and we commend the sanctioning body for taking the time to do the necessary due diligence to ensure that the right call was made.''
Matt Kenseth finished sixth in the race to earn 39 points and that was enough to move him three points ahead of five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seed in the Chase. Kenseth has five victories this season, the most of any Chase driver, and is ready to culminate his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing with a championship.
“I think we're prepared,” Kenseth said. “I mean, tonight (Richmond) was a little bit of a struggle, but yeah, it's been an amazing 26 weeks, that's for sure. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff and the whole team – really can't thank that group enough and everybody back at Joe Gibbs Racing. They give all three of us really good cars every week, and they're a lot of fun to drive. Happy about our finish and looking forward to going to Chicago and getting this thing started.”
Johnson is the second seed with four wins this season and has a reason to be confident despite dreadful results over the last four races with an average finish of 31.5.
“As I look at the string of bad races we've had here over the last three, four weeks, the majority of the tracks that resemble the Chase, we've been fast,” Johnson said. “We had a blown engine and tire failure at Pocono. Bristol, here (Richmond), tracks we don't see in the Chase, we've had our issues. I'm glad Richmond and Bristol aren't in the Chase. I feel the 10 tracks that are in the Chase are very good for the 48 team. We'll start over on a clean sheet of paper … and go at it.”
Kyle Busch is the third seed followed by Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch, who became the first driver to qualify a single-car team into the Chase.
“To make the Chase with these guys is an unbelievable feeling,” said Busch, whose Sprint Cup title came in the inaugural year of the Chase in 2004. “It's been an 18-month work in progress, and I've been through a lot, and I've learned a lot, and I feel like I'm better ready for the Chase and life in general as a 35 year old.”
Kasey Kahne and Newman, as a result of the NASCAR ruling, qualified for the Chase by capturing the wild-card spots that are based off season victories.
The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and will be televised live on ESPN beginning at 1 p.m. CT. The opening round will be followed by stops in New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega and Martinsville. Texas Motor Speedway plays hosts to the eighth race in the Chase with the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday, Nov. 3, with the final two races coming at Phoenix and Homestead, Fla., respectively.
Tickets are available for the AAA Texas 500 as well as the Nationwide Series O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge (Nov. 2) and Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino 350 (Nov. 1) by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com or by calling the speedway ticket office at (817) 215-8500.