The Frontstretch: That NASCAR Where The Inmates Run The Asylum by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 9, 2013

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That NASCAR Where The Inmates Run The Asylum

Thomas Bowles · Monday September 9, 2013

 

Editor’s Note: Starting today, Tom Bowles returns to writing full-time for Frontstretch through the Chase. You can find his columns on Monday, when he’ll be writing a post-race commentary and also on Wednesday with one of the website’s signature columns, Did You Notice?

Monday morning marks 36 hours since the end of Sprint Cup’s “regular season” at Richmond. Every other major sport would be a marketing machine, publicizing the first round of the playoffs. NASCAR? With accusations of cheating, hanging back and questionable cautions they’re still figuring out a publicity nightmare of whom they “might” allow in. As the NFL completes its first week, stealing the spotlight it’s a worst-case scenario even the WWE, the go-to place for stock car criticism these days couldn’t script. Daytona Beach officials now face a crucial decision that, if handled wrong could cause tens of thousands of fans to walk away.

It’s also a problem that’s important to understand… because it’s been building, far beyond Clint Bowyer’s “suspect spin” and potential cheat-like consequences Saturday night. This controversy comes 18 years since NASCAR’s multi-car revolution, important to revisit at a moment where the sport is wondering, “At what cost?” Hendrick Motorsports, winning its first title that year hit the finale with a nearly insurmountable lead for Jeff Gordon. The only way Dale Earnhardt could take the championship is if he won the race, led the most laps and Gordon finished dead last. So Hendrick pulled out a car for Jeff Purvis, in the race purely for one reason only: to park in case the unthinkable happened. It was the smallest of moves, deemed unnecessary but also spoke to a “new” championship-winning philosophy. In a sport built on individual success, it’s better for “the business” of four to five cars if one of them winds up winning – the individual concept of competing was clouded. Sharing information, working in tandem across teams, and shifting resources to whatever car was doing best became commonplace.

The era of team orders, however subtle in NASCAR had begun, along with a copycat movement: within five years, the multi-car model was a sink-or-swim mandate to succeed in the sport’s top tier. It was a new era, one that made a select few rich at a time when unprecedented growth was a yearly event. The “middle class” of the 43-car field slowly disappeared, but who cared? Everyone left standing was rolling in the dough of TV contracts, fattened sponsor deals and racetracks selling out the second they posted tickets. As dictator Bill France, Jr. grew weak, fighting cancer and eventually ceding the CEO spot to son Brian the scales tipped more towards multi-car mayhem. NASCAR’s ironclad control at the top was vulnerable; a “country club” group of a half-dozen owners, whose expansion allowed them to control the 43-car grid gave them unprecedented leverage.

So did the downturn of NASCAR’s economy. Over the last six years, as ratings tanked and investor interest soured the success of the sport depended on men like Hendrick, Jack Roush, and Richard Childress staying in it. No one was around to take their place; at least, no one with the passion these men brought to the table. Toyota’s entrance, welcomed just before the real-life American recession became a necessity. Without them, and the new owners like Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull (now gone) the Cup Series would have faced a short field, filled with junkyard dogs while just 15-20 cars had the funding to run up front.

Those big teams came with a cost, of course, that mentality of “all for one” in a sport where second place is the first loser. NASCAR wasn’t built on participation trophies for everyone; just ask Dale Earnhardt, or more importantly, the dozens of drivers he slammed aside. It was hard contact and harder heads, in the form of driver rivalries for the win that attracted its modern day audience. A 1-2-3 parade finish, for the good of “the business” has been bad enough, making fans yawn as teammates cheer success and fail to compete down the stretch against each other.

I think the sport did see this coming long before Richmond’s ridiculous ending. A push to cap multi-car teams, for example at four was put on the books in 2009. But by then, it was a decade too late. These owners simply sidestepped, knowing all they had to do was threaten to leave, starting their own series or selling to the highest bidder and NASCAR would be brought to their knees. So while there are “technically” limits, “satellite” operations, like Richard Petty Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing depend on engines and chassis from their “bigger” counterparts in order to survive. NASCAR makes the rules, but in the end, it’s the owners who choose whether the field will abide by them.

Which brings us to Saturday night. Richmond’s race, in the eyes of most was “won” by Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon, sitting solidly inside the top 10 was poised to make the Chase for the ninth time in ten tries. Only a caution by Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, in which he spun out on his own switched the outcome. In-car video makes that spin look suspicious; in-car audio makes it look like Watergate. Candid quotes by the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was running directly behind the “wreck” are like a 300-page indictment from the CIA on the case. Add in teammate Brian Vickers, who dropped back without explanation to add a point for Joey Logano and a conspiracy theory is very much on the table. Without those actions, Gordon outpoints Logano, sending MWR’s Martin Truex, Jr. to the house instead of the postseason.

How ironic that Hendrick, the one who helped spawn this modern-day philosophy is now the one being “victimized,” both in the form of their driver (Gordon) and SHR client (Newman). The same goes for MWR, who has been involved with cheating in the past (see: 2007 Daytona 500, jet fuel). But the ramifications go far beyond just them. NASCAR is facing a hard reality that the basic concept of their existence, 43 cars battling each other for first place, has changed. An individual sport is now a team game, where it’s every man for himself unless it benefits the organization he works for. A redneck sport has gone corporate, hard contact amongst each other replaced by a chess game where even cheating is on the table in order to make a multi-car organization they work for millions on the bottom line.

A sport, in one spinout became exposed as a business instead of a form of entertainment. And if there’s one thing sports fans don’t like, it’s watching a corporate empire unfold in front of them in their spare time outside of work. Kind of makes the whole fans hating the Chase problem inconsequential, huh? No one follows a sport that doesn’t compete the way the fans want; you know, the ones who actually generate the business. The rules they’re being sold and what’s really happening, on the racetrack are failing to match.

That leaves NASCAR with a few ugly choices. One, they could ignore this whole Richmond ruckus, passing on the conspiracy and hope too many fans don’t leave with a sour taste. Team orders have happened before, giving them precedent to do it although there’s never been an issue this bad. Two, they penalize Bowyer, perhaps Truex heavily but allow the current Chase field to stand. It’s a risky move, considering proof may never be 100 percent in this case; strong innuendo, however damning doesn’t make you guilty in a court of law. Three, they simply change the “end” of the race to the lap when Bowyer spins out. That adjusts the results, putting Gordon and Newman back in, but manipulates the field in a different way where I suspect a majority of people will still be unhappy.

The best compromise, in my view would be simply adding Gordon and Newman, an unprecedented 14-driver Chase as it’s hard to fully prove a conspiracy. Even then, NASCAR leaves with a black eye; when’s the last time any major sport changed their playoff rules in-season? Sidestepping major punishments, while acknowledging potential crimes makes it seem NASCAR’s lost complete control.

But maybe that’s because it has. Right now, the inmates are running the asylum, in the form of car owners playing their own game and everyone else is left to deal with the consequences. The only way this stops is if the ones with the real power change their own philosophy… or if the powers that be, down in Daytona Beach find some sort of last-ditch strategy to stop it.

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sully
09/09/2013 03:07 AM
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That is saying the race was over before it was over if you give in and allow those two in the chase. In this year in particular with the late race cautions aplenty, the solution you put forth is saying you saw in a crystal ball the outcome which is just as bad as if not worse saying what happened was the correct and the final outcome was based ont that caution, again a crystal ball. Nobody in this scenario of racing crossed the checkers so to right a “wrong” is stupid because we don’t know what the “wrong” is!!!

Bill B
09/09/2013 07:16 AM
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Great article Tom. Good perspective on what happened Saturday and how we got there. In my mind there is no doubt that Bowyer spun on purpose and then he and Vickers pitted to make sure Truex got in.
More subtle tactics have been used in the past but this one was by far the most blatant.
My guess is that NASCAR will do nothing and let things stand even though it will cost them fans and viewers at least in the short run.
What happened Saturday night took the team orders concept to the extremes. Too bad Hendrick didn’t tell Kahne (or Johnson if he was still out on the track) to wreck Logano on the restart. That would have been the proper counter-move in this wrestlemania chess game.
And if that’s the way this is going to work then don’t be surprised when things like that start happening. And why wait until Richmond?

Josie
09/09/2013 07:26 AM
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Well Sully I guess NASCAR could call the race at the time of the spin and say it was “rain shortened”! (I’m sure at this point NASCAR feels like their in one of the worse storms possible and with the water rising drowning is a reality!) A solution..I suppose, besides heavy fines and possible suspensions…adding Newman and Gordon to the Chase and seeding Truex and Bowyer 13 and 14 might be the only choice NASCAR has. If they do nothing (which they are really good at) they are going to have a dismal Chase..and a bleak future. NASCAR has gone along making up rules and turning a blind eye for many years…the problem is their eyes may be blind..but us fans have 20/20 eyesight..and it’s getting sharper everyday! As far as multi car teams..not my favorite..but I truly don’t think most teams would go to quite the extreme extent MWR has gone to help a team mate. There’s “helping “ and then there’s “manipulating”…

sal
09/09/2013 08:11 AM
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Yes, this is the abortion Nascar created with multiple teams and a not-a-playoff ‘chase’. With attendance and TV ratings down, I think they are reaping the rewards of Brian France’s corporate racing.

Robert Eastman
09/09/2013 08:19 AM
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An excellent article! NASCAR is in a “no-win” situation. No matter what they do, a very vocal segment of the fan base will be screaming “bloody murder!”
For the record… I’ve always been a Jeff Gordon fan and never a Clint Bowyer fan. That said… “hey Jeff, payback’s a b*tch!” Because NASCAR didn’t penalize Jeff Gordon for intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix last year, which could have potentially cost Clint the Cup Championship, NASCAR will re-enforce the accusations that they favor HMS and Chevrolet if they penalize Bowyer and MWR!
Having the “phantom caution” at Richmond that allowed Jeff to get back on the lead lap also plays into the “NASCAR favors Jeff Gordon/HMS perception.”
The smartest thing for NASCAR to do is “nothing!”
It’s always entertaining to watch NASCAR “mumble, fumble, and stumble about!”

Fed Up
09/09/2013 08:25 AM
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WRASCAR isn’t going to do anything. It would mean their sport is rigged. If they wanted to change something it should have started with the Edwards restart. As long as Robin Pemberton is in charge, RCR will not get any justice. Pemberton is still PO’d at Childress over the
Martin intake debacle when he was crew chief. Just another inmate. Great column.

Jim
09/09/2013 08:28 AM
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Lets see now, let me check my crystal ball, but didn’t some one crash Bowyer last year late in the year I think it was, where it helped his team mate a good bit. I don’t watch much at all any more, but seems like I remember seeing some replays of Gordon not only taking out Bowyer, but then going after him in some form with his 3500lb additude adjuster? Maybe someone who watches all the time can fill in the blanks.

DonM
09/09/2013 11:02 AM
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I got home early enough to watch the last 40 minutes or so. Couldn’t believe the “spin” and the subsequent restart! Good article and your suggestion makes good common sense; which means of course in NASCARWORLD it wont happen. Newman got screwed. The chase was a joke before Saturday night, now its become a farce.

Mike Daly
09/09/2013 11:18 AM
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What NASCAR needs to do is break up multicar teams and break up their engine monopolies, period; also allow other tire companies to supply teams and thus break up the Goodyear monopoly that does nothing but help the country club.

rb
09/09/2013 11:31 AM
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If NASCAR decides, beyond a shadow of doubt, that MWR cheated, and wants to make a statement, why not simply disqualify MWR from the chase which would move Gordon and Newman in, I believe?

Zach Hall
09/09/2013 11:48 AM
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This is hands down the BEST article on the State (or Problem) of NASCAR I’ve ever read.

NASCAR is a mirror for what is happening to this country. Corporate America (Multi-car Teams) is taking over and it has no more accountability or concern than Big Government (NASCAR HQ). The product suffers and those who lose are the Middle Class (Single Car Teams and Fans).

phil h
09/09/2013 11:58 AM
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the nail has been hit on the proverbial head

good read

and spot on

Dane
09/09/2013 12:41 PM
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I posted this on the other article, but I wanted Tom to see it since I know he reads them. This is coming from myself, a fan of NASCAR since I was 4 (1989)…

Ever since they started throwing fake debris cautions it has made this more of a show then a race. I’ve really struggled over the years with NASCAR manipulating the races to cover up the piss poor product the cars, tires and tracks have out out there. Restarts don’t excite me when they aren’t genuine. If a race is meant to go the whole way without a caution, let it happen – It’s not fair to the team who gets a big lead because they hit the setup early on to have it erased by a fake caution. If your not happy with your product – FIX IT! – eliminate some aero dependency on the cars, better tires, different tracks.

Friday night watching a cup driver steal a win from a NW regular by jumping a restart left another bad taste in my mouth. Two things that are awful about NASCAR right now – cup drivers dominating NW and horrible officiating – both on display. I didn’t think Saturday could be any worse, but boy was I wrong. When Newman took the lead and was about to race his way into the Chase, it reminded me why I love the sport. 10 minutes later, after an intentional spin and blatant blown restart call, i was reminded why I can no longer get excited about this sport and waste my time.

My driver is in the Chase, but I am done watching races for the year. Hell, I might be done forever unless NASCAR decides to actually let the teams “race” on tracks that put on a good show. I put up with the boring CHASE races on 1.5 milers for so many years, but now that the race to the championship is insincere I see no need to watch. I’m tired of wasting 4-6 hours of my life every weekend only to feel cheated and manipulated.

Upstate24fan
09/09/2013 12:48 PM
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Good article, it was a black eye for NASCAR on Saturday Night. There have always been team games since multi-car teams became the standard, but this went “Beyond the Pale”. NASCAR has to do something, or Hendrick and SHR will take “street justice” out on the race track. It’s time for Brian to “grow a pair” and do something. At the very least penalize the 15 and 56 enough to make winning the Title a miracle.

I think the “inmates ruling the asylum” is spot on. NASCAR needs to remember its a dictatorship and step up. The big owners aren’t going to pack up and leave, they saw what happened to IndyCar. Though we do have to remember NASCAR treats the individual teams as independent contractors, and that is important to their business model. For example, it prevents the drivers from forming a union, and could save them from anti-trust litigation. In the end, I’m just sickened by the whole thing.

jerseygirl
09/09/2013 01:44 PM
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Count me as one of those fans who won’t be watching the next 10 races. I may not be back next year either.

I do prefer to have at least a modicum of belief that the sports I watch aren’t fixed and NASCAR pushes that belief into the negative on a weekly basis.

I doubt that NASCAR will do anything worthwhile. They will pretend nothing can be proven & let’s all just move along. Nothing to see here.

This cheating was just too blatant for me.

paltex
09/09/2013 02:24 PM
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Sponsors, Sponsors. If
fans would let napa
and the energy drink outfit
know that they would not be using their product,
things might change.

Dr. Gonzo
09/09/2013 02:50 PM
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This race seemed to demonstrate that Henrick is not nearly as good at team orders as most people suspect. At the final caution the #5, #24 and #88 were all on the lead lap. All they needed to do is have the #5 or #88 stay out and Lagano wouldn’t have been able to take the wave around and hence pick up a few positions. Or it would have forced Boyer and Vickers to head to the Garage.

Russ
09/09/2013 02:53 PM
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First this is almost a classic case of “getting what you asked for”. The incident at Richmond is only the latest in a series of these manipulations, and is not unique. Don’t forget a similar event with RCR, again at Richmond, only a couple of years ago.Nascar,with its looking the oher way, and manipulations, has allowed it to get to this point. A point where the teams actually control them not the other way around. My guess is they will issue a statement, citing “no conclusive proof” and move on. But a bit more of the audience will slip away, and the sponsors will be just a little more reluctant.
Meanwhile the NFL and college football just get bigger.

Steve
09/09/2013 03:15 PM
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I posted this on another article and thought it was relevant here.

Nascar minipulates races every week and you expect them to penalize a team who tried to do the same thing. Personally, I hope Nascar does nothing so it will make them look even more stupid.

Nascar made their bed with this stupid chase and now it is finally catching up with them and I can’t get the smile off my face at how this is going to make Nascar look. This controversy is all over the web and makes Nascar look like a joke and I love it. They are getting what they deserve.

I hope the ratings tank for the Chase too. No Gordon. No Stewart. No defending champ. And the possibility of Johnson winning #6. Sounds like must see tv to me.

With regards to the restart, instead of enforcing the rules, Nascar plays favorites again.

And oh by the way, the Bears are home this weekend. Having nobody show up for the first race of your precious playoffs doesn’t look so good. Maybe they can give a discount to all Amtrak employees considering the nice long train they will be watching all day long on Sunday.

Sorry to be all negative, but this is what it has been reduced to for a 20 year fan who used to plan their weekends around Cup races.

Steve Cos
09/09/2013 03:50 PM
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First of all welcome back Tom!! Always a great read. I agree with everything I read here. My only issue is why wasn’t Carl Edwards black flagged? I don’t care if the 27 turns into the dirt the second place car cannot cross the start/finish line first. Carl Edwards did not deserve the win. He’s lucky about all the other talk or he would be the top subject. Glad your back

Chris
09/09/2013 03:57 PM
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I think I’m done after this one. I’ve been watching less and less over the last few years. This is probably the final straw.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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