What was the biggest news story to come out of the 2010s?
Now that the 2010s are coming to an end, it’s time to look back at the decade that brought along a laundry list of changes to NASCAR, one that fundamentally changed both how the NASCAR Cup Series champion was decided and how NASCAR conducts its national touring series races.
There have been a number of major events over the past 10 years: the Brian France arrest, the rise of Kyle Busch from a devastating injury, the retirements of the sport’s three biggest stars (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Paul Menard winning a race. But there was one situation that rises above the rest, one that had a direct impact in multiple unforeseen facets of NASCAR at large and brought about the bulk of that laundry list of changes.
Sept. 7, 2013. The events of the night at Richmond Raceway have been well documented elsewhere, but to make a very long story short, Clint Bowyer was ordered via codewords by team owner Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing’s then-president, Ty Norris, to spin out and cause a late-race caution in order to ensure that teammate Martin Truex Jr. would make the playoffs. It was obvious enough that ESPN, the race’s broadcaster, picked up on this before signing off for the evening. Penalties came down hard during that week, with Truex not making the playoffs and Ryan Newman being added in, along with Jeff Gordon because of yet another controversy from this race.
As an immediate result of the incident, NAPA Auto Parts pulled its funding of MWR and Truex left the team after the No. 56 was closed down. MWR continued on for two more years, losing all of the momentum it had created in 2012 and 2013 before finally shutting down after 2015 when co-owner and moneyman Rob Kauffman decided he was no longer going to fund the operation. MWR could have continued to limp along, but the damage to the brand had been made. It was labeled as a cheater, the team that tried to fix a NASCAR race.
And believe it or not, the moment that Bowyer was told to “itch” his arm over the radio, just a single second in time, almost everything that happened with NASCAR in the years that followed and the years yet to come.
What became of NAPA in NASCAR?
Just a week before the spin, a young driver was celebrating his first national touring series victory.
Chase Elliott, a 17-year-old Hendrick Motorsports developmental driver, won the 2013 edition of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Elliott, the son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, seemed primed and ready to become one of the future stars of NASCAR .
There was one hurdle that Elliott had to get over however, one that many young drivers can’t: money. Although Elliott had worked with Aaron’s in the past, the renting store wasn’t going to drop sponsorship of longtime partner Waltrip and his successful No. 55 Toyota to put all of its chips on the table for Elliott. And although Elliott had connections thanks to his father, there was only but so much both the elder Elliott and Hendrick could piece together.
Elliott was about to embark on a part-time schedule with JR Motorsports in 2014. Then the MWR incident happened, and NAPA was looking for somebody else in the sport to get behind. It found Elliott, helped to fund him for a full season with JRM in 2014, and the rest has been history.
So, would Elliott have never made it? Nobody can say for certain, but my guess would be yes. It was probably only a matter of time before Elliott would end up in a Cup car. But there are no guarantees that would have happened, it might not have been with Hendrick Motorsports, and there’s no way he’d be established enough to be the most popular driver in the sport after the retirement of Earnhardt. Which would have been a complete disaster for NASCAR.
Does Truex still dominate the latter half of the decade?
The month before the spin, a rising Cup team was looking for a driver.
It was announced that Kurt Busch would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing, an ultimately triumphant return to a championship contending race team after Busch’s dismissal from Team Penske after 2011.
It left Furniture Row Racing without a driver, after a season where it had made the playoffs for the first ever time. Truex and NAPA had a contract that ran through 2015, and the No. 56 team was fairly competitive at the time. There was no reason for Truex to hit the free agency market if NAPA didn’t leave. But leave it did, and Truex was told that he could talk to other teams, eventually finding a home with FRR.
If the spin doesn’t happen, Truex stays with MWR and never goes to FRR. I love this scenario the most, because the big rumor I can remember of at the time was that FRR’s plan b was that the seat would be filled by… Juan Pablo Montoya.
That’s right, Montoya would have been on a team with the best crew chief in the business, a team on the ascent even without TRD support, and the most reliable equipment he’d ever been in (Chip Ganassi Racing cars had been pretty unreliable during Montoya’s tenure there, while the Richard Childress Racing cars FRR were using were not fast, but always extremely solid).
Forget the first oval win, Montoya would have been a very viable championship contender within the next couple of years instead of having to run back to open wheel after nothing viable really opened up in NASCAR.
Maybe Truex becomes a champion with MWR anyway, but it’s very unlikely that happens. Remember that prior to Truex joining FRR, he had just two wins in seven full-time seasons and a best points finish of 11th twice. He was right about where Jamie McMurray was after seven full-time seasons, for comparison’s sake. The spin has ended up being the best thing to ever happen to Truex.
Are we talking playoffs?
Probably the most significant change for the 2014 season — changing the playoffs from the 12-driver, 10-race Chase to the current 16-driver, four-round playoff format — probably came as a direct result of the spin. As ridiculous as these teammate shenanigans were becoming, and still are (come on Jay, don’t be so obvious), the idea of a team outright playing Formula 1 to have a driver win at the expense of a yielding teammate was and still is unthinkable. And the new 100% rule has ensured that NASCAR could just play god again if a team got cute enough to be noticed.
Oh yeah, and as a result of the playoff format, NASCAR would make an even bigger change a few years afterward with race stages, changing the basic structure of how a NASCAR race works after nearly 70 years of competition.
So at the end of the day, were Michael Waltrip and Ty Norris wrong for making the decision to attempt to fix a NASCAR race? Yes, Waltrip and Norris should have both been banned for life. And if you want to know what Norris is doing now, he is the president of Spire Motorsports, one of the shadiest teams/organizations in the garage. That’s a great sign as to how that company is ran!
However, the ramifications and the changes that came as a result of the spin makes it unarguably the most important development in a decade full of them. And the sport is probably better off as a result of this one. This one moment in history, what should have been NASCAR’s most infamous moment has become the moment that its future was forever changed. Sometimes, the worst possible scenario in somebody’s life ends up being the best thing that could have ever happened to them.