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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