The warning was issued in the pre-race drivers meeting on Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway: "Play fair and square," a NASCAR official forcefully told the drivers and crew chiefs in the room that sits in the track's infield.
For a decade, NASCAR has always delivered this message to everyone in the sport before the final race of the regular season. But it took until Saturday night for a team to blatantly disobey the command. In what has quickly become the biggest story of the 2013 season, Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing appeared to deliberately spin out with seven laps to go, thus triggering a caution flag that eventually cost (at least so it seemed at the time) Ryan Newman of Stewart-Haas Racing a spot in the Chase. Newman was leading when Bowyer spun out, but lost ground in the pits and wound up fifth.
There was more nefarious behavior from the MWR team: Brian Vickers, a MWR driver, inexplicably slowed during the final laps, which ultimately allowed teammate Martin Truex Jr. to beat Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports by one point in the final regular season standings and (so it seemed at the time) earn a spot in the Chase.
It was a complicated, convoluted sequence of events and it took NASCAR until Monday to act. The sanctioning body stripped Truex of his playoff berth, awarded Newman a spot in the Chase, fined Bowyer $50,000 and owner Michael Waltrip $300,000 (the biggest fine in the history of the sport), and suspended spotter Ty Norris indefinitely.
The notion of sportsmanship in NASCAR has long been complicated. To crew chiefs working under the hood in the garage, for instance, the line between ingenuity and cheating is usually as gray as the winter sky over Moscow. But by replaying team communications between Norris and Vickers, it was clear that Vickers was ordered to slow at the end of the race, an act that undermined the credibility NASCAR. After all, if you believe stock car racing is a sport as much as, say, golf is (and I do), any behavior that tarnishes the ideal of fair play should be punished swiftly and severely.
So NASCAR needed to do something drastic. To its credit, the sanctioning body did. To me, the fines on MWR, placing Newman in the Chase and removing Truex from the playoff field did indeed constitute an aggressive and proportional response.
The driver who really lost the most in all of this was Jeff Gordon. If Bowyer doesn't spin and Vickers doesn't slow and Bowyer doesn't pit for what seemed like an eternity, Gordon would be in the Chase. But now he's out and he's justifiably upset, tweeting on Monday night "Feel bad for Truex. He got in under controversy now out due to it. But the guy who started all of this (Bowyer) not (a)ffected at all??? Don't agree!"
Bowyer and Gordon feuded throughout much of the 2012 Chase, with Gordon intentionally wrecking Bowyer in Phoenix, an act that spawned a pit road brawl between the two drivers' crews. Expect more fireworks between the two in the races ahead. I've got a hunch that Gordon's actions, when it comes to Bowyer, ultimately will speak louder than his tweets -- and that may end up being the most damaging fallout for MWR for their foolishness last Saturday night.
Meanwhile, NASCAR also has to deal with allegations that Penske Racing worked out a deal with Front Row Motorsports to help Joey Logano secure a Chase berth in the final laps at Richmond. AP reported that the spotter for Front Row driver David Gilliland told his team about Penske's request to let Logano pass Gilliland. After a restart, Gilliland's lap times dropped and Logano got by, securing a berth with a 22nd-place finish. Interesting times in the world of NASCAR.
Before I answer the mail addressed to yours truly, here are three notes sent to my colleague Cary Estes, whose Monday Power Rankings column about the scandal triggered quite a bit of reaction, pro and con.
"This sport is just like any other -- you follow rules or you get out."
-- Richard, Athens, GA
Estes replies: I have absolutely no problem with NASCAR penalizing teams and drivers for breaking the rules. But I remain baffled by the level of outrage that has been directed toward Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing for their actions at Richmond. My point was that this is a sport that has a long history of teams and drivers who have tried to bend the rules to their advantage, and sometimes they have bent them to the point of breaking. Some of the biggest names and teams in NASCAR history -- including Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and, more recently, Jimmie Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus -- have been caught cheating.
So the concept of cheating in NASCAR certainly isn't anything new. And in my opinion, many of the infractions of the past have been much more egregious than what took place at Richmond, which I put more in the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" category of cheating. What I saw at Richmond were competitors who were trying to game the points system to their advantage. Nothing more, nothing less. But for the most part, the reaction has been that Bowyer, Waltrip and company trampled on every shred of integrity imaginable, which I find to be curious given the history of the sport.
"Your casual attitude toward endangering the health, welfare, and livelihood of others is surprising. Despite the fact that Bowyer did not hurt anyone does not mean there was no possibility."
-- Jerry, Charlotte MI
Estes replies: Again, it is the level of outrage the incident generated that I was talking about more than the incident itself. Plus, a solo spinout on a relatively wide short track like Richmond simply is not that dangerous of an action, especially when compared to the number of times we have seen drivers physically bump others out of the way -- sometimes in traffic -- in order to gain a position. And fans routinely applaud that type of move as good hard racing, not cheating. As Steven Cole Smith so perfectly put it on Autoweek.com, "If it's commendable to spin out the leader and win, what's wrong with just plain spinning out or pitting when you don't need to?"
"The ex-moonshiners raced in the 50s and 60s. And they did not intentionally wreck one another because many were driving their one and only personal cars."
-- Jerry, Charlotte, MI
Estes replies: If you think that NASCAR drivers in the 1950s and '60s didn't intentionally wreck each other on occasion, then you're reading different history books about the sport than I am.
Now let's allow Cary to park his pen in the garage and I'll handle the rest of the mailbag. Let's rev it up:
"Clint wrecked no cars, but he did wreck Jeff Gordon's place in the Chase. I would bet Jeff wrecks Clint in the coming weeks. He could never let Clint win the Chase."
-- Frank (no hometown given)
Can't argue with a single word you wrote, Frank.
"I'll add my voice to the few saying NASCAR should have stayed out of penalizing Michael Waltrip Racing. Three hundred thousand is probably getting off easy, in contrast to how many MWR cars would have been stuffed into the walls by the 31 non-Chase cars with their opinion on how to deal with manipulating the race. As James Finch will tell you, it don't take long to go broke if you're constantly building new cars."
-- Tim, Malhat, B.C.
Excellent point, Tim. The heavy fine by NASCAR may end up being a good thing for MWR, given that teams may be less inclined to administer their own sense of justice on the track.
"I have been watching NASCAR since 2007 and I have yet to see Jeff Gordon do anything all that special. He had a decent Chase one of those first years for me, but that's about it. It seems people who have been following this sport longer than me just can't seem to understand he is a shell of his former self. He is in the best equipment out there and constantly underachieves. He needs to retire or be willing to face Schumacher-like criticism (if NASCAR media had the guts F1 journalists have)."
-- Steve, Columbus, OH
Steve, I have been writing for several years now about how Gordon has endured more hard crashes in the last decade than any other driver in the sport. As a consequence, he's understandably no longer as aggressive as he once was. Plus, drivers' typically start to slow down at age 38, and Gordon is now 42.
Still, he is capable of winning on any given weekend. Though he's yet to reach Victory Lane in 2013, he has five top-five finishes this season. It would surprise no one in the garage if Gordon takes one checkered flag during the Chase.
Thanks for all the great questions. Please keep the coming. Now it's onto Chicagoland for Chase race No. 1.