Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday September 13, 2013
It all changed in a single puff of smoke. When Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota spun in the closing laps of the race at Richmond, Saturday night, it forever altered the way many people will view the sport, the team, and the drivers involved.
NASCAR responded quickly and harshly, handing down large monetary and point penalties to all three Michael Waltrip Racing teams, suspending an employee indefinitely, and changing the Chase field post-point fine. MWR appears to have accepted the penalties without appeal or apology. Media and fans have spent the week digesting the developments, trying to make heads and tails of an impossible scenario.
But in the end, all anyone can do from here is to move forward.
The big question is, how does everyone do that in a manner that minimizes the damage and puts the spotlight back on the racing with ten events still to go in the 2013 season? How do the sanctioning body and the organization they caught in a web of deception put the whole scandal behind them and stop the PR bleeding? Obviously, how this crisis is handled by all involved is crucial, with major public relations and sponsorship implications as both NAPA and 5-Hour Energy are reevaluating their future participation in the sport.
So, what can each party do?
NASCAR — NASCAR put themselves in a tricky spot with the penalty. Going forward, they need to do one of two things regarding this type of infraction: enforce the same penalty every time, or develop a protocol for investigating and punishing this type of manipulation. While they did the right thing in issuing a penalty, taking a strong stand against manipulating a race, the final outcome was poor. The person who actually did the manipulating gets virtually no punishment, while the one who benefited, most likely unknowingly and without participation, got walloped.
The best thing NASCAR could do in the short-term is issue the same penalty to Penske Racing, Front Row Motorsports, David Gilliland, and Joey Logano since it’s come out that a deal made on the spotters’ stand also helped assure Logano a spot (though by gaining just one point, all he really did was avoid a tiebreaker, which Logano would have won). If the sanctioning body doesn’t investigate, issuing a similar penalty, they lose any credibility they may have gained from the original investigation.
Longer term, they need to sit down over the winter and figure this one out. It’s nothing new; Kyle Busch has come out and said Denny Hamlin pulled into the pits for an unneeded stop to help him gain points, and a few years back, then-Hendrick Motorsports driver Casey Mears was told point blank on the radio to let teammate Kyle Busch pass him in the closing laps for the points as Busch was in the Chase and Mears was not. And really, while those situations aren’t exactly positive, are they really that terrible in the long run? Underhanded and poor sportsmanship, to be sure, but there are other things in NASCAR that are both and are not penalized.
There needs to be a better policy here. A harsh penalty for spinning out on purpose is warranted because that’s a real safety issue. Bowyer didn’t collect anyone, but he could have, and that person could have been hurt. Yes, that’s a risk of racing, but it should never be a risk a driver takes because another spins on purpose. It could be argued that Bowyer wasn’t penalized enough; he’s in the Chase, even in the same seeded spot, and after the points reset, takes no hit. He could easily win the whole thing, which would be a PR nightmare for NASCAR and rightfully so.
But coming to pit road, or giving up a spot on track doesn’t really hurt anyone or put an innocent bystander at risk. It’s lousy sportsmanship, but drivers do lots of things that fall into that category: obscenity-laced tirades on the radio, intentional wrecking, and more. So in light of the penalties Brian Vickers and Martin Truex, Jr. were given, NASCAR does need to hit Logano and Gilliland with the same, because of the immediate impact. But in the long run, their violation should not be treated the same as an intentional spin, because it’s really not that big a deal, and has been going on for years. NASCAR needs a policy to cover the whole thing.
Also, there needs to be a more immediate reaction to questionable calls. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson called for red-flagging an event if there was a questionable incident. “In my opinion, if there is a question they don’t know, they need to stop the race immediately,” he explained this week. “Red flag, pits are closed, figure it out and make the best judgment they can. Because trying to go back on Monday or Tuesday to fix the situation is just too much.” The five-time champion is right, not only in an incident like this one, but also on questionable restarts and other on-track controversies. NASCAR blew two restart calls this weekend, and — coupled with “Spingate” — that puts them in a bad light that could be avoided.
Finally, the incident gives NASCAR a real and credible “out” on a playoff system that has been a complete and utter flop with most fans. The governing body needs to take a serious look at the Chase in the offseason, and give real thought to ditching the format altogether. It hasn’t boosted attendance or ratings, the vast majority of fans want it gone, and now NASCAR has the perfect excuse to make a change back to a season-long title hunt. Will teams still make moves like this one without it? Probably, since they did it before the Chase, the way Truck Series owner Jimmy Smith put a few extra Trucks in the race to quit early if needed to help Ted Musgrave win a title. One of those extra entries wrecked point leader Brendan Gaughan during that race, a move that many have speculated was deliberate. Musgrave didn’t win the title, but neither did Gaughan.
So, removing the Chase wouldn’t eliminate underhandedness… but it would be a popular move, and this gives NASCAR the chance to make it without outright having to admit they made a mistake instituting it in the first place. Perhaps this adjustment is the best PR move NASCAR could make in this situation: give the fans something they’ve wanted for a decade while putting the blame on the actions of the competitors. It’s the perfect out for an organization who won’t ever admit it was a mistake in the first place.
Michael Waltrip Racing — It may be too late for this organization to regain its credibility completely, but there are things they could do to at least stop the bleeding. First and foremost, the team needs to issue an official statement of apology to the other teams in the race and to race fans. The best thing MWR could do right now is to fire Ty Norris, who NASCAR suspended as the mastermind behind the Richmond plan. Norris has a history of being underhanded, and the team needs to cut ties immediately. That clears the way for a statement along the lines of, “This kind of action will not be tolerated by Michael Waltrip Racing, and the person who put our team in this position has been terminated, effective immediately.” Those are the actions of a team who wants to compete on the up and up, who wants to make amends and move forward. Continued support of Bowyer by team ownership only says that the organization condones dangerous, bad behavior.
NAPA, a longtime sponsor of Waltrip and his team, posted a message to its Facebook fans earlier this week indicating that they may pull their sponsorship from the organization. “The actions taken by Michael Waltrip’s Racing team this past weekend leading to the penalties assessed by NASCAR, are very concerning,” said the company. “We are disappointed that a partner associated with our organization would make such a significant error in judgment. In addition, we have launched our own review to determine the future of our partnership with Michael Waltrip’s Racing team. The NAPA AUTO PARTS organization is proud of its long-standing NASCAR relationship. We share a passion with our customers for high quality racing and seek to determine the best course of action for our customers, NASCAR fans, and the NAPA organization.”
Bowyer’s sponsor followed suit. “We respect NASCAR’s penalties against MWR & are addressing our sponsorship relations internally, said 5-Hour Energy via social media. “We appreciate your understanding & patience.”
Losing two of three major partners would be a huge, and possibly fatal, blow to the organization. The team needs to take a stand that tells the companies they should stick around, that they will be represented with integrity and respect. For the future of the company, Michael Waltrip needs to take a stand within the team that bears his name.
Martin Truex, Jr. — Truex is as much a victim in this manipulation as anyone. “I just want to take a min to thank my fans, NAPA AUTO PARTS, Toyota, NASCAR, my fellow competitors, & MWR for their support,” said Truex this week via Twitter. “I was very excited for my team when I learned that we clinched a wild card spot Sat night in Richmond. I drove the hardest race of my life that night & was unaware of any other circumstances other than needing to finish as high as I could to have a chance.” There is absolutely zero reason to believe he isn’t telling the absolute truth.
Going forward, Truex needs to do exactly what he did at Richmond: race hard, run his race, and get the best finishes he can without controversy. He needs to shake hands in hospitality and sign autographs for as many fans as possible. He needs to prove to NAPA that he’s still a good choice to represent their brand. Hopefully, Truex won’t be vilified forever, because he was never a villain at all.
Clint Bowyer — Bowyer is a good guy. Yes, he had a huge lapse in judgment, but here’s what it’s important to remember: he was doing what his bosses told him to do. Yes, he could, and should, have refused. But that’s easier said than done, especially in the heat of the moment. Regardless of the penalty (or, really in Bowyer’s case, lack thereof) the driver needs to make a public apology for his actions, which were dangerous and irresponsible. Should he be out of the Chase? Yes, because at the end of the day, Bowyer did spin in traffic, putting other competitors in danger and throwing his integrity in the faces of race fans.
And from now on Bowyer, like Truex, needs to go to every length to make amends and to repair his damaged reputation. He needs to sign autographs like they’re going out of style, issue an apology, and race clean. That’s all he can do.
NAPA and 5-Hour Energy — The sponsors were put in a tricky situation. In the case of NAPA, they not only are associated with the scandal, but lose the exposure of the Chase as a result. That’s huge, financially and they should reevaluate their program with MWR. However, they should stand by Truex. If that means following the driver to another team (and there are plenty of teams that would be glad to have such a package deal) then that would be a good move. Truex was involved because it was his Chase spot that was gained and then lost, but he wasn’t directly involved in the incident and likely didn’t even know about any plans beforehand. The sponsor should recognize this dichotomy even if they eschew the organization… as perhaps they should.
5-Hour Energy is in the unenviable position of making the right decision, and there are no easy answers. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they decided to move to another team and driver. However, taking Bowyer to another team could also be an option that might not carry too much backlash, especially if they subscribe to Bowyer doing what he was told without time to think about it, and if they consider that the driver issued a heartfelt apology to Ryan Newman after the incident. That says volumes about his character. But does it say enough? That’s what 5-Hour Energy will need to decide.
Leaving MWR would probably be a good move by both sponsors, but it’s hard to say that Truex, in particular, deserves that punishment, and leaving outright could put NAPA between a rock and a hard place with fans. 5-Hour Energy could go either way with Bowyer, who was directly involved and had the opportunity to say no, regardless of who told him to spin.
The minute Clint Bowyer spun, NASCAR and its fans lost a lot of whatever innocence they had left. That can’t be changed nor can it be gotten back. But what all involved do going forward could go a long way toward forging a brighter future out of the ashes… or to forever taint themselves with the stench of underhandedness and lack of integrity. The next days and months are critical for NASCAR, for MWR, the drivers, and the sponsors. The decisions they make will shape a sport, drivers’ careers, and the fans’ perception of the sanctioning body, the team, the drivers, and the sponsors. They have to get it right; there will be no second chances.
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