Conspiracy theorists took little time in pouncing on NASCAR’s credibility this week following the lap 127 pass-through penalty of Juan Pablo Montoya for driving too fast on pit lane. Keep in mind there is no real incentive for the sport to intentionally interfere with Montoya’s dominating performance, nor is there a shred of evidence that would support an argument the sanctioning body conspired to severely handicap the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver’s chances of winning at Indianapolis.
That did little to temper the accusations of fans, however.
Of course, it’s important to note Montoya himself contributed to the controversy by his adamant refusal to accept NASCAR’s ruling. As soon as it was handed down, he immediately suggested that something was amiss in the series scoring tower to boot. “If they do this to me, I’m going to kill them,” Montoya said on his radio while transiting pit road at highway speed. “There’s no way. I was on the green [dash light].”
Then, to add emphasis to the extent at which Montoya believed in his innocence, the fiery chauffeur of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet took it to a whole different level. “Thank you, NASCAR, for screwing my day,” he said. “We had it in the bag, and they screwed us because I was not speeding. I swear on my children and my wife.”
After that affirmation of his certainty that it was NASCAR and not he that had made the error, who wouldn’t at least consider the possibility that the sport, for whatever reason, was wrong?
Following the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, won by Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, post-race talk shows, internet message boards, and no doubt living rooms across America were discussing what had transpired with less than three dozen laps remaining in one of the most prestigious races in the Sprint Cup Series. Among those offering opinion, more than a few believed that Montoya had been the victim of a dastardly scheme to be robbed of his first oval-track Sprint Cup win.
Of course, Montoya and those that believed NASCAR engaged in anything less than an above-board decision to penalize him are wrong. There is ample physical proof in the way of computer readouts to verify that he, in fact, had sped through at least two timing loops coming down pit lane. The timing equipments’ accuracy is also not suspected by any of the principles involved – Montoya, Ganassi or Felix Sabates – to be inaccurate, an opinion that in itself seemingly renders the controversy a moot point. In fact, after a Sunday evening phone conversation with NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France, Sabates shortly thereafter told XM’s Dialed In audience that he believed the team would find that their tachometer calibrations were off.
Like a murder mystery, a good conspiracy theory needs a motive. Try as one might, it is almost impossible to make any kind of argument that holds water for NASCAR wanting to engage in any shenanigans designed to rob Montoya of the win. Had the penalty not interfered, the outcome would have been good print for the racing series, making history with the first ever open-wheel and stock car winner at Indy. Certainly, there would be much more print and broadcast coverage from it than yet another win by the dominant Hendrick Motorsports team… and in particular Johnson, who not only has taken the last three Sprint Cup championships but is a frequent visitor to victory lane.
Then, of course, there are those that believe that Hendrick Motorsports and more specifically Rick Hendrick somehow has NASCAR in his hip pocket – even to the extent that they would “fix” a race for him. It’s a whole other conspiracy theory that has had a long shelf life, but does not stand up well when thoughtfully considered. How could it possibly be in NASCAR’s best interest to favor a team or driver to the extent that they win at a disproportionate rate and dominate championships?
No, it is in the sanctioning body’s best interest to have as many different teams, drivers and manufacturers in victory lane as possible. A level playing field and close competition is what best sells the sport… and NASCAR is fully aware of that fact.
Then, of course, the oldest motive of all for tomfoolery is from time to time thrown NASCAR’s way. Money! People claim Rick Hendrick pays off NASCAR for favorable treatment in order to see his cars routinely visit victory lane. Well, one must ask themselves just how much money it would cost the successful car dealer to buy NASCAR. One would think a lot more cabbage than Rick Hendrick can find under his seat cushions, right? Besides, if NASCAR was for sale, are there not other wealthy owners that would get wind of it? For instance, Roger Penske, a team owner that has the financial wherewithal to purchase a whole automotive brand [Saturn] among his many profitable enterprises might be a little ticked, taking his ball and bat and going home if he were to find out that NASCAR was up for bid and he hadn’t even been notified.
So, then, what is the motivation for these folks that entertain such crazy notions concerning NASCAR? The answer is simple: NASCAR itself!
Few things in life are beyond reproach… but this sport certainly isn’t one of them. Stock car racing’s number one organization seems, by design, to operate in gray areas as opposed to black and white. Whether it is in the awarding of race dates to tracks, drug policies, the even-handed levying of fines and penalties or, most blatantly, “phantom” debris on the track, the sport seems to work with a subjective and not objective tone. They wave cautions that clearly are intended to bunch the race field up and provide for the more desired and entertaining close-quarters racing. Not coincidentally, these “entertainment” cautions that are all-too-often used near the conclusion of events give the appearance that the organization is not above fabricating dramatic finishes.
Since we’ve brought it up, there is also little doubt out there that NASCAR is willing to tinker with race finishes. Fans, team owners, crew chiefs and drivers are resigned to the opinion that NASCAR will throw a caution flag should the racing become stale. In fact, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular personality, expressed surprise during a nationally broadcast interview that NASCAR hadn’t thrown a debris caution in the middle parts of the race at the Brickyard. At one time, Montoya had built a lead of more than four seconds and turned the race into a real snoozer of an event.
Despite that past history, though, there’s no doubt the conspiracy theorists are off base on this one with their belief that Juan Pablo Montoya was robbed of a win by NASCAR. Those that are of the opinion that the race was rigged to give Johnson and/or Rick Hendrick a victory are likewise wrong. But can they be faulted for being suspicious?
As long as stock car racing’s top organization continues to operate without complete transparency and without clearly defined rules and regulations, they will continue to suffer from a lack of credibility in every one of these instances. It’s a credibility that, for them, can only be won back by operating in every aspect of the sport with honesty and integrity… nothing more, nothing less.
And that’s my view from turn 5.