The message from NASCAR is loud and clear. If you cheat, be sure you don't talk about it. That was evident following NASCAR's decision on Monday to boot Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and replace him with Ryan Newman. The move was in response to the chicanery by the Michael Waltrip Racing team that took place on Saturday night at Richmond in order to help Truex make the Chase field.
A late spin in that race by MWR driver Clint Bowyer and subsequent "mystery" pit stops by Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers set off a chain of events that, when the checkered flag finally flew, resulted in Truex barely claiming the final spot in the 12-driver Chase field over Newman. (Truex won in a tiebreaker.) In handing down the penalties -- which included a $300,000 fine for MWR and a meaningless loss of 50 points for Bowyer that does not affect his starting position in the reset Chase standings -- NASCAR admitted there was no "conclusive evidence" that Bowyer's spin was intentional.
Instead, what got MWR in so much trouble was all the radio chatter between the drivers and their race crews in those closing laps. Particularly damning was an order that MWR general manager Ty Norris gave to Vickers to make an unnecessary pit stop because, as Norris brazenly declared over the open airwaves, "we need that one point." The plan was to let Joey Logano pass Vickers and pick up the point Logano needed to make it into the Top 10 of the standings over Jeff Gordon. That gave Logano an automatic berth in the Chase and opened up one of the two wild card berths, which Truex was able to claim over Gordon since Truex has a victory this year and Gordon is winless.
It was a convoluted scenario that likely could not have not resulted in much advance nefarious planning by the MWR team, leading credence to Waltrip's statement released Monday night that the entire situation "was a split-second decision." Still, NASCAR swung down a Thor-sized hammer on the team, though it is odd that the person who was hurt the most, Truex, had nothing to do with all the shenanigans, while Bowyer basically gets away without a significant penalty.
However, Bowyer has definitely taken a major hit to his reputation, as has Waltrip and the entire MWR team. And while I don't blame NASCAR for handing down the penalties, I am a bit amused at the peasants-with-pitchforks outrage that has taken place across NASCAR Nation since Saturday's race. The anger in some quarters was so intense that one would have thought Bowyer had spit in Richard Petty's face. The clamoring mob made it sound like the integrity of the entire sport was hanging in the balance, and they demanded severe repercussions in order to protect the sport's purity and righteousness.
Folks, this is NASCAR, not golf. Many of the racers in the early days of the sport were ex-moonshiners who had honed their driving skills outrunning the law, a fact that actually is promoted on the NASCAR.com website. In other words, the sport began with people cheating and trying not to get caught.
In the decades since, teams have constantly tried to skirt the rules in the race shop, which long ago led to the popular adage, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." On the track, drivers have bumped and banged and beat each other silly. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. famously spun out Terry Labonte to win at Bristol in 1999, a moment that is now celebrated as part of the Intimidator's legend. Heck, one of the most famous incidents in the history of the sport was Bobby Allison repeatedly punching Cale Yarborough in the head at the 1979 Daytona 500.
And yet, because Bowyer apparently took an intentional spin to help a teammate (and in the process did absolutely no damage to any other car), NASCAR's reputation as a beacon for all that is good and true is suddenly on the verge of total collapse.
Lost in all this handwringing is the fact that Bowyer's spin alone did not cause Newman to originally lose his spot in the Chase. Newman still held the lead when the cars pitted, but he returned to the track in fifth place. Afterward, Newman -- who is not being retained by Stewart-Haas Racing after this season -- blasted his pit crew, stating, "We got killed on pit road, there's no doubt about that . . . We should have been able to come on pit road first and come off pit road first. If we were a championship-contending team, we needed a championship-contending pit crew, and we didn't have that tonight."
It will be interesting to see how well the lame-duck Newman -- who announced Monday that he is joining Richard Childress Racing next season -- works with those same pit crew members over the final 10 races of the season, especially now that the team is in the Chase.
Speaking of the Chase, it begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. This is the time of the season when 12 drivers should be fighting and scrapping for any advantage they can get in a quest to win the championship. This year, however, everybody better be on their best behavior. No tricks or sneaky stuff allowed.
1. Kyle Busch (1st previously) -- Busch surprisingly was not much of a factor at Richmond, finishing 19th. But he has won two of the past five races and has a series-best 11 top-five finishes. This could be the year that he finally makes a serious run at the championship.
2. Matt Kenseth (4th) -- Though he has been inconsistent all season, it is impossible to overlook Kenseth's five victories. Also keep in mind that he won twice during the Chase last year while running as lame duck with Roush Fenway Racing.
3. Kurt Busch (7th) -- This ranking might seem too high for a lame-duck driver with a single-car team, until you look at what Busch has done lately. He has posted five top 10s -- four of them top fives -- over the past six races.
4. Joey Logano (2nd) -- There will be some who claim that Logano unfairly received his spot in the Chase at the expense of Jeff Gordon. But the fact is, before Logano finished 22nd at Richmond, he had ripped off a string of six consecutive top 10s. He is a worthy Chase participant.
5. Carl Edwards (unranked) -- Somehow, Edwards actually ended up on top of the point standings after the Richmond race. He still appears to be a championship longshot in the Chase, but he gets credit for winning the Sprint Cup regular season.
6 Kasey Kahne (5th) -- Kahne, on the other hand, wound up a distant 14th in the points standings, but grabbed a wild card berth on the strength of his two victories this season. If he can avoid the trouble that has plagued him in several races this season, he has a legitimate shot at the title.
7. Kevin Harvick (6th) -- Like Kurt Busch, Harvick is a lame-duck driver who is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. Unlike Busch, he hasn't been particularly impressive lately, posting only one top-five finish and two top 10s in the past seven races.
8. Jimmie Johnson (3rd) -- A month ago, Johnson seemed like a lock as the championship favorite. His best showing in the four races since then has been 28th, with two 40th-place finishes. It wouldn't be surprising if he turned it on in the Chase, but right now this team is seriously struggling.
9. Ryan Newman (unranked) -- Could there be a better story than Newman getting this unexpected second chance to make the Chase, and then going on to win the championship before walking out on the Stewart Haas team that fired him?
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- Earnhardt gets the nod for this spot over fellow Chase competitor Greg Biffle. As for Clint Bowyer, no matter how you spin his season, the fact is he remains winless and has not cracked the top 10 in the past three races. It also will be interesting to see how he handles all the controversy from the Richmond race.