Vito Pugliese · Thursday September 12, 2013
Prior to the start of Saturday night’s Richmond race, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton reminded drivers to not put NASCAR in a position to make balls and strikes calls, as they would likely not go in their favor.
On Monday evening, NASCAR not only called a strike but ejected them from the game, as Martin Truex, Jr. was removed from Chase contention following a 50-point fine brought about by the coordinated efforts of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 15 and 55 teams to manipulate the outcome of the race. Their actions affected the winner of the race, and the Chase fates of three drivers. With NASCAR on the precipice as it has been the past five years, it was not something that could have – nor should it – let go unpunished.
The now infamous “Frontstretch Flop” by Clint Bowyer to bring out a caution with six laps to put Truex back into Chase contention, was obvious and could not be tolerated, despite of the claims of “lack of proof” – though Bowyer’s interview with Ricky Craven had him squirming in his chair like Nicholas Cage in “8mm”. The intercepted radio traffic and in-car footage from Bowyer’s car has quickly become the Zapruder film of NASCAR, indicting a complicit driver in Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie.
I call it The “Training Day” Doctrine. As Alonzo told Officer Hoyt, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.
The resulting fine knocked Truex out of the Chase, with Norris suspended indefinitely. Norris communication to Brian Vickers to make an unnecessary pit stop because they needed a point was also part and parcel of Truex making the field, by moving Joey Logano into the mix, displacing Gordon.
The spin was as blatant as the move executed in 2011 by RCR to send Paul Menard around to help get Kevin Harvick a win heading into The Chase. What was worse, MWR also had to get Brian Vickers in on the action as well, to make an unnecessary pit stop to give Joey Logano one more car to race, and a 79mph last lap speed. The leaders at the time were running 120-123mph lap times. On the final restart, Newman’s new SHR teammate Mark Martin was in fourth position and could have made things very difficult for both Truex and Joey Logano, but ran his line and allowed the faster cars to race for the Chase spots amongst themselves.
Memo to teams attempting a similar strategy: if you’re going to come up with a secret code to tell your driver to spin out, maybe come up with one a little better than itching your arm (after all, scratching your arm would be the proper instruction…). Still, I guess it’s still better than a start and park team using “vibration” for a lap 5 exit from competition. Clint Bowyer’s post-race interview avoiding eye contact, reciting a series of events that didn’t happen, and changing the subject halfway through his answer was not exactly Oscar-worthy either.
Don’t get me wrong: we all know that team orders have been a part of racing for quite some time, and to its credit, has been less of an issue with NASCAR than any of the other major racing series – Formula One being the primary example. What’s worse is that there was such overwhelming evidence both audio, visual, and empirical timed data to confirm that the outcome of the race was manipulated.
When team cars became the norm in NASCAR in the mid 1990’s, it was the “what if…” scenario that has been playing itself out for five days now.
Now word comes down that NASCAR is investigating radio traffic that indicates Joey Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing team was trying to work a deal with fellow Ford team Front Row Motorsports and David Gilliland to move over and let them have a spot.
Some are trying to draw a moral equivalency between the two — and look beyond desperate doing so. If a driver elects to yield a position to another for whatever reason, that’s their call. Trading 20th position for 19th is worth just as many points as leading a lap — and how often do drivers trade the lead so they can both get a bonus point during the season? That is a far cry from dictating who wins the race, and the championship outcomes of three different drivers by intentionally halting the race and leaving the racing surface.
It’s a bit ironic that the discussion surrounding the events of the past few days, in part stems from NASCAR’s desire to gain legitimacy with both the core fans and casual fans. This current scenario is in part fostered by Green White Checker restarts and the the nature of the Chase itself —inspired to create drama and a playoff-type atmosphere in the fall. Had this been before 2004, the race would have been over, with Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman in The Chase – and Newman with two race wins versus one.
Another culprit? The Mario Kart points system now used, where it is one point per position, no matter where you are running. Had this been under the previous tiered systems, where the points difference per position would start at five, go to four, then three as you worked your way lower through the field. I recall Tony Stewart’s reaction to the change a few years ago, saying it would be great because it would be easy for a driver and team to calculate during a race.
Perhaps too easy?
If the championship was still a season-long cumulative contest, this would be a non-issue and never have even happened in the first place. That does not excuse the legitimacy of competition being impugned, and fans hard-earned dollars buying tickets for a tainted product. While consistency has not exactly been a hallmark of NASCAR rulings, despite the “gray area” that affects everything from car design, on-track activity, and driver conflicts, their response to this incident has been firm, fair, and unquestionably needed.
Granted, Martin Truex, Jr. probably thinks otherwise, but this is a bit of a self-policing move that sends a message for future indiscretions: it is not just going to be a driver penalty, but a total organization penalty.
As invested as he is to the success and well-being of the sport as an owner, driver, spokesman, and commentator, Michael Waltrip cannot be privy to the integrity of the sport being called into question, particularly at this critical juncture where things are starting to turn around attendance and ratings wise. This coupled with the demise of SPEED, and NBC returning as a broadcast partner in 2015, the events of Saturday night were nothing less than the old standby used for fines since 1948: Section 12-4-A – Actions Detrimental to Stock Car Racing. Then again, this is a sport that is rooted in the manufacture and distribution of illegal substances, tax evasion, and eluding law enforcement.
While I disagree with the tactics and the-ends-justifies-the-means mentality of this, I think by Homestead it will prove to be a moot point. Ryan Newman was 14th in points, and Martin Truex, Jr. 12th in points entering the race. There has been absolutely nothing about either of their performances this year that remotely resembles a championship contending race team. While Martin Truex’s performance the last couple of weeks has certainly been manned up driving hurt, the No. 56 team always acts like they’re playing from behind, or waiting for something awful to happen.
Newman nuking his team on TV immediately afterward the race and sub-par pit stop wasn’t exactly the mark of a champion either – or a guy who’s sticking around next year.
Trading a 12th place team for one in 14th should not put the other 11 teams better than them on notice. The only caveat to this is that in the past four years, Ryan Newman has wins at New Hampshire, Martinsville, and Phoenix – though three races do not a champion make. I will say however, it looks like Clint Bowyer got the last word in on the feud between him and Jeff Gordon that reached a garage-sprinting crescendo at Phoenix in November of 2012.
Which by the way, many seem to be glossing over with how Gordon manipulated Bowyer’s championship quest last year, intentionally wrecking him at Phoenix, as Brad Keselowski narrowly passed through. This of course after his teammate Jimmie Johnson stuck it in the wall, seriously compromising his title chances.
Gordon himself I feel has been a bit precious about things the last few days – as if there was never anything of question ever raised about the 24’s performance during the 1995-1999 seasons. He hasn’t won a race this year, and under a non-Chase scenario, he’d still be 11th in points, one point behind Logano (with Logano winning the tie-breaker too by the way – so don’t start with the Front Row Motorsports conspiracy with Gilliland pulling over), 92 points out. Besides, he caught a “timely” caution himself that prevented him from going a lap down and really being buried in the field Saturday night as well.
After all of this drama has blown over and the green flag falls in Chicago on Sunday (which it will…some MLBer will get popped for steroids, or some NFL player will get caught with weed on a traffic stop), and everybody has things turned up to 11, the teams to beat are still going to be the 48, 20, 18, and 5 – in that order. They’ve shown the most consistent speed this year, and their teams don’t wilt under pressure or make excuses. The 78 and 22 will make things interesting early on, but I’m not convinced they’re ready to make that step yet to a true title contending team.
As long as the true championship contending teams show up and are ready to focus on the task at hand in Chicago, I don’t see this lasting much longer. As much time and energy that has been expended over this the past few days will be exhausted by the time that the casual fan is setting their fantasy football line up.
That is of course unless Jeff Gordon or Martin Truex, Jr. win, at which point I think they’ll just start rioting.
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