Mike Neff · Tuesday September 10, 2013
Monday night, NASCAR’s Mike Helton and Robin Pemberton stood up in front of the media to announce one of the harshest penalties towards an organization in its 64-year history. A $300,000 fine was issued for Michael Waltrip, along with an indefinite suspension of Ty Norris, the placement of all three of the team’s crew chiefs on probation and a 50-point penalty for each driver and car prior to the seeding of the Chase. The consequences, wide-ranging in scope are designed to punish Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole — far beyond any of the individual race teams. The sport’s officials felt there was outright manipulation, altering the finish of Saturday night’s race at Richmond and there was no choice but to come down hard to ensure such strategy would never happen within a Sprint Cup race again.
Unfortunately, the end result is that Martin Truex, Jr. is the only driver who “loses out” in this entire scenario. Brian Vickers isn’t running for points, so the only penalty there is for the No. 55 is owner points and they weren’t in contention for the title anyway. Clint Bowyer’s penalty is post-Richmond, not post-Chase seeding. That means he still has 2,000 points, leaving him 15 behind Matt Kenseth which is exactly where he was before the flap. Truex, meanwhile goes from contending for the title to being just another car on the track while the chosen 12 battle it out. Sound fair to you? The shame of it all is that Truex raced his guts out Saturday night to make the Chase. He did nothing untoward, oblivious to the actions around him and yet he’s the one paying the ultimate price.
The myriad of angles and opinions on this topic are going to be as wide and diversified as the entirety of the NASCAR fan base. Before I present my take on things, though here is a brief list of some of the facts that were presented during the media press conference on Monday night. These were themes spoken, again and again when Helton was questioned by the assembled press.
- When NASCAR penalizes, they do it to deter something from happening again. It is not to penalize an individual, even if that is how the penalty is administered.
- Mike Helton believes the Chase has created more competitive racing throughout the season. By design, there is a lot of attention about who will make the Chase and who won’t. That is what the Chase is all about and that is what NASCAR racing is all about.
- Helton felt that the mathematics of tracking who was in the Chase and who was out was spectacular for the competitors and the fans.
- Teams are required to use analog communication so that fans are able to listen to the strategy of the teams because that is a significant part of the race day experience.
- There is no conclusive evidence that the No. 15 spin was intentional.
- The preponderance of evidence that damned MWR is the communication to the driver of the No. 55 and the discussion afterwards. For those unaware, Norris had a conversation with Vickers in which he made it clear the No. 55 car needed to pit under green. When the driver asked why, the response included the words, “We need that one point [for teammate Truex].”
- Ty Norris confirmed said conversation with the No. 55 during the final four laps.
- NASCAR always tries very seriously to maintain, for the most part, its credibility. Helton claimed he said “for the most part” because fans have the right to whatever opinion they have.
- This is the biggest fine in NASCAR history based on the dollar amount. It is the biggest reaction, at a team level, in history based on points and money.
With that as the palette from which to paint your opinion… here is mine. NASCAR just took another giant step towards becoming professional wrestling. For years, we have seen the people who make the calls in the tower try and orchestrate excitement in races. Bogus debris cautions, refusal to make actual pit road times available in real time, assorted discrepancies in how in race rule interpretations are applied and selective use of the caution flag during late-race incidents are just a few examples of that. The fact that Mike Helton has to make a point that NASCAR takes its credibility very seriously shows they know they have a credibility problem. Here’s my concern: this decision has done absolutely nothing to bolster that credibility.
Helton pointed out, at the beginning of the press conference, that the presence of teams in NASCAR has been a great benefit to the sport. He said that they have always tried to maintain a fair and level playing field with the presence of multi-car teams. He acknowledged that they’ve never had to step up and penalize a team before now. The problem with that is the reaction didn’t happen until fans screamed enough on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to do so. The reason it took this long for something to happen is… what happened Saturday night has happened, in some way, shape, or form since the dawn of multi-car organizations.
For years, there were instances of teammates scuffing tires for other teammates. Teams have swapped crew members, during races, to try and benefit one team over another. During the whole tandem drafting experience, teammates constantly hung out non-teammates when the opportunity presented itself. None of these actions were ever met with scrutiny or discipline, even though they obviously were to the benefit of teammates over the other competitors. Saturday night, because it was on TV, people now have more access than ever to scanners and in-car audio. People were aware of the conversations on the radio and, as a result, the anger spewed forth that somehow, someone was wronged by the fact that Clint Bowyer spun out or, more accurately, Brian Vickers didn’t race as hard as he could have.
Racing is a very competitive sport. The testosterone on pit road, the intensity and emotion in the cockpits, the ebbs and flows of momentum can push people to the breaking limit. It can also allow some people who are smarter than others to take advantage of a system and gain because of it.
Even before the Car of Tomorrow, but especially since, NASCAR has continuously tried to legislate competition. The Chase, the new point system, the tighter tolerances on the cars, the wave around, the Lucky Dog… all of it is trying to dictate how the races unfold. Well, auto racing isn’t supposed to be equal. It isn’t supposed to give everyone exactly the same equipment to work with. Innovation and ingenuity have led to hundreds and thousands of automotive discoveries over time. That’s not where NASCAR wants to go anymore; instead, they make the rule book so tight so that there is no wiggle room, resulting in people having to try desperate things. Saturday night wasn’t desperate — it was smart. Ty Norris, standing high above the racing surface in Richmond, with four laps left on the scoring pylon, realized that having Brian Vickers slow down and allowing Joey Logano to pass would put Logano in the top 10 in points and, ultimately Martin Truex, Jr. in the Chase. The fact that he was that aware of such a convoluted situation, able to make a strategic decision to give his driver a shot at a championship should be commended, not penalized.
There have been 7,384 laps of competition through the first 26 races of the season. 207 caution flags have flown during those races, giving drivers and teams hundreds of opportunities to make changes and strategic decisions about their cars and their races that ultimately have shaped and determined where they sit after the checkered flag has flown at Richmond. There have been times, throughout the year, where drivers have gone to the pits at odd times, drivers have stayed on the track when they could have pulled into the pits to keep a caution from flying, or stayed in the groove a little too long with a blown engine, resulting in a caution for oil cleanup. The point is there are a multitude of opportunities to make a decision based on what is better for your teammates during the season. Just because one was made on Saturday night should not be grounds to invalidate a team’s efforts for an entire year, which is the intended or unintended consequence of this decision.
Having teams as a major component of your sport — arguably one of the biggest components since Furniture Row is technically the first single-car team to ever make the Chase — there has to be acceptance of some team orders. Don’t forget, when Roush had all of his teams in the Chase, they were orchestrating teammates getting bonus points for leading races. We’ve got non-Chase teammates trying engine modifications and testing to try and develop faster, better setups for those that have made the postseason. Those types of strategies won’t change because of what was announced Monday night.
The bottom line is that racing used to be about racing and not a bunch of rules, regulations, and overly judicious crap. Just because a team was smart enough to outsmart the system doesn’t mean they should be penalized. Also, if you’re going to penalize the team, penalize the whole team, not just the guy who didn’t do anything but race his heart out, with a broken wrist, to try and make the Chase.
Do I want to see team rules where one driver gets preferential treatment over his other teammates? Or rules that cause finishes of races to be orchestrated? Of course not. I want to see racing the way it ought to be… drivers and teams pushing the limits of their physical and mental abilities to make their cars go as fast as possible, exploiting the gray area of the rules. Saturday night wasn’t even a gray area. The rules simply work that the driver who crosses the line ahead of another driver is scored ahead of them. Ty Norris realized that, if he had Brian Vickers slow down and come to pit road, it would put Joey Logano into the top 10 in points, which would put Martin Truex, Jr. into the Chase. There wasn’t anything wrong with that… it was smart.
Another aspect of this entire situation is that Toyota has just had a position in the Chase taken away from them. Toyota had four drivers contending for the title after Richmond. Now, they have three. They went from 33% of the Chase field to 25%. I’m no lawyer, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but it certainly seems like there is a very substantial ground for some litigation here. Honestly, that might be the better of two evils for NASCAR if you think about it. Toyota has a vested interest in the sport but they’re hardly overcommitted. If Toyota chose to, they could take their ball and leave. That would leave NASCAR with two manufacturers and the rumors of Dodge returning. That is far from the competitive landscape that NASCAR wants to have.
NASCAR hasn’t turned a blind eye to team orders over the years. They’ve limited the sharing of tires. They’ve eliminated the team radios between cars. The number of cars a team can field is limited. So there have been attempts at limiting the advantage each car owner can have during the race. However, this penalty has taken that restriction to an entirely new level. NASCAR has now put themselves squarely into the team strategy equation. Certainly, there are times when it is obvious that a team is trying some kind of shenanigans, but other times it is subtle. But once you enter this type of arena, setting a precedent it’s hard to go back. NASCAR is going to have to make calls that they never should have had to make. They’ve not only opened a can of worms, —they’ve now put themselves into a position where they can openly impact the outcome of races by making calls on the decisions of race teams. It is an area where I do not think they really want to go, nor should they go.
But they’re there.
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