I know I will probably be on the wrong side of the fence on this one but I think NASCAR made a huge mistake by throwing Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase for the Championship and putting Ryan Newman in.
There are just so many things wrong about it that I barely know where to start. I mean, this is the sort of knuckle-headed decision you expect to be made by IndyCar, not NASCAR.
And the opening of this colossal can of worms is going to come back to haunt it, big time.
(Wednesday night update: NASCAR is now investigating whether Penske Racing made a deal with another team to get Joey Logano into the Chase. See?)
In the final race of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup regular season at Richmond, Va., last Saturday night, Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer was cruising along, minding his own business, when he suddenly spun out with eight laps to go. This resulted in a yellow flag.
Ryan Newman was winning the race at this point but gave up the lead to go to the pits for fresh tires. He eventually restarted in fifth place and when the race ended he was up to third. He blamed his pit crew for a slow stop.
While the yellow was out, Waltrip Racing’s general manager and spotter, Ty Norris, ordered another driver on the team, Brian Vickers, to stop in the pits. Vickers questioned the call but obeyed it and this enabled teammate Truex to move up a spot and score enough points so that when the race ended, he and Newman were tied. Truex made the playoffs on the basis of a better finishing record in the regular season.
The power of social media took over at this point. Fans went to Twitter and immediately started to question the spin and some of the other moves that were made by Waltrip’s team during the caution. They charged that Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome in order to get Truex into the Chase.
NASCAR announced that it was reviewing the incident. On Monday night, it ruled that while there was no evidence that Bowyer had spun on purpose, it frowned upon the Vickers pit stop that enabled Truex to score more points and so Truex was out and Newman was in. NASCAR cited the old "actions detrimental" rule for its decision. Waltrip Racing was fined $300,000 and Norris was suspended indefinitely.
I heard this and I could not believe it.
First, NASCAR always announces suspensions, penalties – whatever – on Tuesdays. What’s with the Monday night announcement? That might seem irrelevant but it’s not: it’s indicative of a rush to judgment.
Second, why is Newman being allowed into the Chase? He took himself out of the lead of that race last Saturday night by going to the pits when Bowyer spun. That was the bone-headed move that lost him the race, not the other variables.
By putting Newman into the Chase, NASCAR is assuming he would have won the race if Bowyer had not spun and there had not been a caution. But how do they know that? He might have had a tire go down and his car hit the wall. His old tires might not have held up and he might have been passed for the lead on the last lap. There could have been a Big One and he might have been caught up in it. All sorts of things could have happened in those last eight laps.
Since when is a smart call by a smart individual suddenly illegal or immoral? Ty Norris saw what was happening and took advantage of the situation. Remember, NASCAR is on record as saying there is no proof that Bowyer spun on purpose, so officially it was an accident. As a result, this is the sort of thing that a Chad Knaus would do. Any team manager or crew chief worth his salt would have done exactly the same thing in that situation: there's a yellow, so call in a team car running up front in order that a trailing car can move up a position, particularly when the playoffs are at stake. What is wrong with that?
I mean, baseball managers will change pitchers just to waste time. Football coaches will throw the challenge flag, knowing there’s no hope of a reversal but simply to stop the other team’s momentum. It’s the smart thing to do.
Team orders – if you want to call them that – have been going on in NASCAR and elsewhere since racing was invented. F1 has sometimes been a little more blatant but it goes on in NASCAR and IndyCar too and that’s why auto racing is called a team sport. Drivers have helped others on their team by drafting with them, trading places on the speedway and even giving up wins in order to benefit a teammate and everybody – participants and fans alike – knows it.
And the other side of the equation - the negativity - has always been there, too. I mean, a year ago Bowyer was in the running for the Sprint Cup championship and Jeff Gordon was pissed about something. So he slowed down and waited for him – waited for him – to come around the fourth turn at Phoenix International Raceway, at which time he drove up and into the side of him and wrecked him.
Everybody saw it happen and everybody realized the implications. Gordon crashed Clint Bowyer out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Did NASCAR say, "Poor Clint suffered a little payback at the wrong time so we’re just going to pretend it didn’t happen and he’ll get the points for finishing third?"
Of course not. NASCAR did nothing to alter the outcome – which was the right thing.
Now, Michael Waltrip has been eating crow since NASCAR lowered the boom on him and his team this week. Why? Because although he had three cars out there last Saturday night, Michael Waltrip Racing is not a big team in the way that Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing are big teams.
The whole operation is built around Michael Waltrip’s celebrity, which also includes television work on behalf of the networks that broadcast NASCAR racing. If Michael browns somebody off badly enough, he could be out on his ear so far as TV work is concerned and if that happened his race company would be in big trouble.
So he’s kissing butt like crazy, ‘fessing up and apologizing with every second breath.
But what if this had happened to a team owner who isn’t as dependent on the blessing of NASCAR? What if this had happened to, say, Rick Hendrick, and Chad Knaus had called – say – Jeff Gordon into the pits so that Jimmie Johnson could squeeze into the Chase?
(This is hypothetical, people; don’t get excited.)
If NASCAR then threw Johnson out, as it did Truex, I guarantee you that Rick Hendrick would have his lawyers on the phone to NASCAR.
And what about the jumped starts last weekend – particularly Friday night in the Nationwide Series race in which Brian Scott led 239 of the 250 laps of the race, only to lose it to a guy who pulled off an illegal move? Brad Keselowski won by jumping the last restart. He went so early, he was crossing the finish line before anybody else could get up to speed. An exaggeration, yes, but it was blatant and it was illegal and NASCAR should have acted but didn't. Even ex-Sprint Cup champion and current TV analyst Dale Jarrett said it was wrong.
To avoid what could be non-stop challenges to its authority (see IndyCar), I suggest NASCAR had better start policing restarts better.
Two weeks ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Chase Elliott "won" the Camping World Series truck race there by driving into the side of Ty Dillon’s truck and ramming it into the tire wall on the last corner of the last lap. There was nothing subtle about it; it was an all-out assault and the farthest thing from "racing" that you’re likely to see. NASCAR, of course, did nothing.
NASCAR might not like it but it will have to now start policing this "tradin’ paint’ business or there will be no end to the grief it will experience.
See what I meant when I said a can of worms? In one fell swoop on Monday night, NASCAR opened the door to protests and complaints and just general, all-‘round, non-stop, bitching. And something even more serious, as it turns out: another team - Penske - attempting the fix the outcome.
NASCAR has brought this on itself. It should have done nothing until Tuesday. Then, it should have acknowledged that there might have been some dirty pool being played last Saturday by one or more of the teams trying to get into the Chase. It could then have said that, as is NASCAR custom, Truex would be allowed to continue in the playoffs but it wanted all the teams to know that:
"Beginning immediately, NASCAR will no longer tolerate manipulation of the order of race finishes. Team orders of any kind are illegal. NASCAR will police starts, restarts, pit procedures and racing "incidents" with vigour and will dispense penalties and other rulings immediately. Appeals can be filed so long as irrefutable evidence to support the appeal is included and decisions will be made within 48 hours."
Fair warning is needed for something as radical as this week's penalty. Simply, it's not fair to suddenly change the rules of the game the way NASCAR did. NASCAR has been built on WWF-like conflict and "have at it, boys," behaviour and that's now all out the window. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and NASCAR is going to have to police everything.
A knee-jerk reaction, like the one this week, can only lead to trouble. Believe me, NASCAR is going to rue the day it unilaterally altered the playoff lineup of 2013.
- NORRIS McDONALD