Here's a question worth pondering: Since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, has NASCAR endured a worse week than the one it experienced starting with the race at Richmond on Sept. 8 and concluding in the small hours of the morning on Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway? The answer, to me, is obvious: absolutely not.
To review: Clint Bowyer purposefully spun out at Richmond to try to help his teammate, Martin Truex, advance to the Chase while Penske Racing cut a deal with Front Row Motorsports in an attempt to push Joey Logano into the playoffs. Amid cries of race fixing from fans and media, NASCAR booted Truex out of the Chase and put Ryan Newman in. A few days later, in a move that had an arbitrary whiff to it, NASCAR decided to also pencil Jeff Gordon into the playoff field, fueling a growing national perception that the sanctioning body was making up the rules on the fly -- a sentiment, frankly, that was hard to argue with.
So as the sport was being lampooned nationally as the second coming of pro wrestling, the Chase kicked off at Chicagoland last Sunday. Naturally, it rained and the race was delayed more than five hours. It wouldn't have been as long if NASCAR's fancy new track drying device Air Titan -- which the heavies in the sport have been touting all season -- was on hand, but, alas, apparently the track operators didn't want to spend the reportedly $50,000 it costs to have Air Titan at its disposal. And so drivers, crews and few hearty fans waited and waited and watched concrete dry deep into the night.
But it still got worse for NASCAR. After the race restarted under the lights, the two most compelling figures in the Chase in my book -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano -- both blew engines and thus now have virtually no chance to win the championship. There will be no white knight named Earnhardt riding in to give NASCAR a ratings boost late in the playoffs.
So no, these are not heady times in NASCAR. The upside: at least the only thing that got hurt over this stretch was feelings, not race car drivers.
Now let's rev up the mailbag, which for a second straight week will feature some thoughts for my colleague Cary Estes.
"Lars, why would NASCAR restart the Chicago race at 10:00PM eastern time? Why didn't they reschedule it for Monday morning?"
-- Michael, Plymouth, MI
The rationale to start the race so late can be boiled down to one word: money. It's expensive (and highly inconvenient) for the teams to stick around for another day. Plus, to NASCAR's credit, the sanctioning body feels obligated to try to run the race for the fans that gut it out in the rain. And if NASCAR had moved the race to Monday, the grandstands would have been wasteland of seats. If ESPN hates one thing more than any other, it's broadcasting a live event in an empty venue.
"Imagine if Clint Bowyer wins the Chase! Great PR Cheater wins the title! NASCAR should have eliminated MWR from the Chase! Thank You."
-- Lenny, Port St. Lucie, Fla.
You are not alone in thinking this, Lenny. But I'm not as appalled by Bowyer's actions as many because, as Cary Estes notes below, cheating has been a part of NASAR essentially since its founding. There does seem to be a growing feeling on Twitter, however, that should Bowyer win the championship an asterisks needs to be placed by his name. Do I agree with that? No.
"I imagine you're getting more than a few questions on the Michael Waltrip Racing shenanigans. Do you think NASCAR did enough to "right" the situation?"
-- Roy, Severn, MD.
I do, Roy. Waltrip was hit with the biggest fine in NASCAR history ($300,000), which tells you how the sanctioning body views the actions of MWR at Richmond. In this case, the punishment did indeed fit the crime.
"Who is the best female NASCAR driver you have ever seen?"
-- Chris, Latham, N.Y.
This is an easy one for me: Danica Patrick. Put simply, she is the most accomplished female driver in the history of American motorsports. And thing is, she's still improving and is my ridiculously early pick to win the 2014 Daytona 500.
"After the fiasco at Richmond, why not change caution flag format? Freeze the field at the caution and restart in that order. To minimize driver shenanigans keep pit road closed for spin outs and debris cautions. Only open the pits for wrecks and green flag runs."
-- Jim, Columbia, S.C.
I understand your rationale, Jim, but often times it's not easy to discern a self-induced spin from a spin caused by a subtle nudge or a pocket of air flowing off a leading car. NASCAR is trying to reduce the amount of discretionary decisions it is forced to make during a race, and I think your suggestion would actually require more NASCAR oversight, not less.
"I have no question, but this is to say that this 'nothing' issue of cheating in your eyes is one of the worst things I've seen in sports. It was disreputable and shocking. If anything, nascar (all lower case until they grow up) has missed how outraged people are about this. In fact, I am disavowing nascar until MWR's cars are disqualified from the chase. How do you plan to sugar coat it when NAPA drops that lying dog driver it sponsors? Keep papering it over, though, since you're just doing your proverbial job as a gadfly."
-- Richard, Boston
Cary Estes responds: "It is hard for me to be shocked by actions that current and former drivers readily admit have taken place within NASCAR for decades. The most popular driver in the sport, Dale Earnhardt Jr., intentionally spun at Bristol in 2004 to bring out a caution and avoid going down a lap. NASCAR penalized him, and everybody moved on. There might have been some complaints about Earnhardt's move, but there certainly was no talk of how he had so severely trampled on the integrity of the sport that his sponsors should drop him.
Giving up a spot or two on the track to help teammates also is a common practice that nearly every driver has done at some point. The problem this time was the shenanigans drew more attention because they directly affected the lineup for the Chase field. I have no problem with such actions being penalized. But to act like this is some new and dastardly plot that warrants the full wrath of NASCAR Nation is to ignore the long history of cheating in the sport.
Not only would I not call this "one of the worst things I've seen in sports," it's not even the worst thing I've seen in NASCAR this year. I am much more offended by drivers who simply hang out in the back of the pack at Daytona and Talladega and don't even attempt to race until the final 15 laps, or the start-and-park drivers who show up week after week simply to run a few laps and cash a paycheck. Seems to me that both actions are in violation of NASCAR president Mike Helton's directive last week requiring competitors "to race at 100 percent of their ability."
"Lame duck Newman? We will see Mr. Estes. I think your full of it!"
-- William, Holley, N.Y.
Estes responds: "I'm confused as to why you are upset that I called Ryan Newman a "lame duck." The phrase refers to somebody who is still working at a job when it is already known they will soon be leaving. That is exactly the situation Newman is in (along with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch). Newman is a lame-duck driver at Stewart-Haas. It's not an insult. It's simply a fact."
"So, Cary, I guess this is your opinion of NASCAR Fans, that we're 'peasants-with-pitchforks.' They are also your readers. Seems a bit disrespectful."
-- Terry, hometown unknown.
Estes responds: "Actually, I wrote that I was amused at the 'peasants-with-pitchforks outrage' that was being generated. It was not meant as an insult of the individual NASCAR fans, but rather at the kill-the-beast mob mentality taking place, as exemplified by the earlier writer who called Clint Bowyer a "lying-dog driver" who should lose his sponsor.
If Bowyer is truly deserving of the animosity and outright hatred that has been directed at him, then how should we react to the long, long list of drivers and crew chiefs who over the years have deliberately done something illegal to their car before a race? To me, that is a more blatant example of premeditated cheating than the spur-of-the-moment manipulation of the points system that took place at Richmond. Both are worthy of penalties, but apparently only the Richmond culprits should receiver our scorn and total disdain."
"Cary, I believe you've missed the entire point of fan outrage. It's over points shaving! It's no more complicated than that. MWR cheated the fans far more than they cheated their competitors. These actions do hit at the core of the sports roots. I'm proud of "every spot counts" and "do what it takes to win." I'm disgusted by drivers letting people from other race teams pass them intentionally, regardless of the basis. I don't care so much for one team member letting another pass to lead a lap, but that's more a product of a contrived point system than evidence of a total disregard for sportsmanship. Thank NASCAR! I'm personally pleased that they reacted swiftly to the folks cheating the fans. We don't need PEDs, Black Soxs, or Pete Rose in NASCAR."
-- Steve, Madison, MS.
Estes responds: "There have been several references, from both fans and national columnists, comparing this controversy to the famous Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919, which is absolutely ridiculous. The Black Sox incident involved gambling and organized crime and players intentionally hurting their teammates (by throwing the game) instead of trying to help them. That is the biggest difference between the two situations. No matter what else you might think about any of the antics that took place at Richmond, the bottom-line intent was to help teammates make the Chase. That is not nearly the same thing as secretly trying to lose games that your teammates are trying to win.
I also have seen numerous people state that the actions at Richmond meant the race was "fixed" and comparing NASCAR to professional wrestling. Again, this is not an accurate correlation. What took place at Richmond was a team (or teams) trying to game the points system to their advantage. But regardless of what they did, all the other drivers still had ample opportunities throughout the race to either win or gain enough points to make the Chase. A "fix" would imply that the results were pre-ordained before the race began and the other competitors had no power to change things, which obviously was not the case."
Thanks again for all the questions, everyone. Now it's onto New Hampshire for Chase race No. 2. I'd love to hear your predictions for who you think will be the 2013 Sprint Cup champion. As for me, I'm still sticking with the same driver I said would win it all back in February:
Mr. Five Time, Jimmie Johnson.