We are now a few races removed from the Richmond debacle and while I didn't care to add my voice to the opinions that were swirling in the immediate aftermath, the developments since then have made it impossible for me to remain silent. The dust has settled from the initial situation, but what has been kicked up in these following weeks won't completely settle for some time, I'm afraid.
As a way of quick review, here is how things happened. Clint Bowyer spun to bring out a caution at the end of the Richmond race that mixed up the finish and kept Ryan Newman from winning, not to mention allowed Joey Logano to move up enough positions so that Martin Truex Jr. ultimately made the Chase. While at some point over the last two laps, Brian Vickers was told to pit just to make sure Martin made it. Afterwards, NASCAR handed out major penalties to MWR that took Martin out of the Chase - just before audio from David Gilliland's radio surfaced claiming they had made a deal to help Joey Logano. NASCAR then back-tracked on their decision to not address 'the ripple effects' and put Jeff Gordon in as the 13th driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NAPA has since announced they aren't returning to Michael Waltrip Racing while 5 Hour Energy recently announced they are sticking with Clint Bowyer.
Ultimately, NASCAR wanted Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase as punishment for his teammates' actions'and their penalties reflected that. But they could not have imagined how wide reaching and destructive that decision would be. I didn't watch the race live (as I was at our local dirt track for a special night of racing), but when I did go back and watch it, I didn't really see anything that stood out as intentional. The reporters were all up in arms at Carl Edwards for 'jumping the restart' (which he didn't get penalized for, thankfully...however, that's a different matter), but didn't even pay much attention to Clint Bowyer's spin, not to mention they didn't even notice that Brian pulled onto pit road. Or - they didn't pay attention to Clint until Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a statement in his post-race interview and they jumped on it to the point where they wouldn't stop talking about it. I do believe that if the media hadn't made a big deal of it, NASCAR wouldn't have handed out any penalties - but it became so big of a deal that they felt they had to. (Which leads to another question - should NASCAR listen to hearsay and react so strongly to it? Isn't that the same thing that prompted the Nelson Piquet Jr. situation this week and Jeremy Clements' suspension earlier this season? Making a big deal out of nothing, in my opinion, for both of those things--even though it wasn't in their best interest to say it, it still should not have been magnified.)
The weird thing is, they didn't even penalize the one thing that was the worst part of it all: Clint 'intentionally' bringing out the caution. He had no clue if it would help Martin or not - Ryan could have won anyway and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference what anyone else did. But I digress. Instead, NASCAR pointed out that they made a point of saying they reacted that way because of the radio communication over Brian Vickers' scanner. Okay, yes, Ty Norris should have been more discreet about it (like Brian Vickers tried turning it to be), but that wasn't a big deal. It happens all the time with teams, and in the big picture, that one point would not have changed anything for Joey Logano being in the top 10 in points. Even if he had been tied with Jeff Gordon, he would have gotten the nod due to his win.
The worst thing about the penalties, then, was that the one person who was completely innocent in the matter was taken out of what he had worked so hard for all season: Martin Truex Jr. He had no idea when asked after the race that anything had gone on - and it's not like there was any master-minded plan at MWR to do all of that. Now, I do like each of the drivers at MWR and I would have preferred there be no penalties at all, but realistically, if anyone got in trouble, it should have been Clint Bowyer alone. Take 20-25 points away from him after the points reset, that would have been a much better statement: 'Don't spin on purpose, or else.' I don't know why NASCAR felt they needed to guard Clint's actions and drop the hammer on someone whose only problem was racing hard to make the Chase all season. Apparently NASCAR's policy about not taking a win away from someone after the crowd leaves does not also apply to the Chase field. Perhaps it should.
So, while Martin was stripped of his Chase status, Clint Bowyer got away free and clear - except for the constant hounding by the media in every interview. According to someone who was at the Chase media day before Chicago, NASCAR did nothing to step in and stop the attack, even after Clint was getting tired of it'I guess that was their penalty to him. And of course, the 50 point penalty to Brian Vickers & his team didn't affect anything since: 1. he doesn't earn points in Cup this year & 2. his team was far enough out of contention for the Wild Card, they wouldn't have made it anyway (and they will still stay top 25 in points). Contrary to popular belief, I don't think Clint should have been completely removed from the Chase, as he had been locked in for a couple of weeks, and so he still should have been.
The consequences of the penalties they handed out have stretched a lot farther than they could have imagined, and we have seen them take some odd turns. The first thing: since they penalized the call to give up spots rather than the spin, that called into question what was said over David Gilliland's audio. That was kind of a big to-do about nothing (and thankfully they didn't do anything to Joey)--who cares if Front Row Motorsports got something in return, Joey's car is good enough to pass him without any help, and that looks like what actually happened--but it led to the last minute decision (even after the first practice in Chicago!!) to add Jeff Gordon to the Chase. NASCAR must have really wanted him in, because it only took them a few days to go from to not address the 'ripple effects' to embracing them & putting Jeff Gordon in. I'm sorry if this upsets anyone, but I don't think Jeff Gordon should be in. Or if they wanted to put him in, than they should have put Martin Truex Jr. back in. And while they were at it, why not go all the way and add Denny Hamlin too - since we all know if he hadn't been out hurt from racing overly hard with Joey Logano, he would have been in the Chase too (okay, I admit: I'm being sarcastic on that one).
The Chase field changing wasn't the worst part of it though, but rather the response from the sponsors, especially NAPA. Thankfully, 5 Hour Energy made the right decision to stay with Clint Bowyer (they were made for each other!), but that was no thanks to NASCAR as the people higher-up in 5 Hour Energy were upset with Brian France changing things at will. I don't think NASCAR could have foreseen that NAPA would leave MWR after the long partnership they have had with Michael Waltrip & Martin Truex Jr., but perhaps they should have considered what taking them out of the Chase could do.
At first, I thought NAPA was just covering their bases by saying, 'we don't condone this and are reconsidering', and they would actually stay. I am not happy they have left, but that is beside the point. Whether they were looking for a way out or had a clause in the contract where if they didn't make the Chase they could leave (both ideas that have been kicked around by people like you and me). The whole thing clearly made them upset enough to give up all they have built with MWR. And while everything else is settling down, that is the one piece we don't know where it will land - and will they take Martin Truex Jr. with them, or might he perhaps find another sponsor to stay at Michael Waltrip Racing? And if he doesn't, where will he go? It won't be to a team as good as MWR, that is almost for certain!
It seems to be a real pity that two spur-of-the-moment decisions could wreak such havoc on an organization. It's not helping NASCAR either. What could have been kept pretty low-key by penalizing the right team has turned into what amounts to a cheating scandal. Not what NASCAR needs after a very competive season to date, along with heading into what has been and will continue to be a great Chase for the Championship. As a NASCAR fan, the whole thing makes me very angry, but there's not much that can be done now. We'll just have to hang on for the ride and see where the cards fall.
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