Massive MWR penalties eject Truex from the Chase
10 September 2013
Less than 48 hours earlier, the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field had been set after the end of the Saturday night race at Richmond International Raceway. But in an unprecedented Monday evening press conference, NASCAR announced penalties that rewrote the line-up.
The penalties were the culmination of a review into events that took place at the end of the weekend's Cup race which was the decider before the Chase cut-off. Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman was leading the race and looking set for victory with seven laps to go when Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer suddenly spun out on the frontstretch.
As a result of the ensuing pit stops and final restart, Carl Edwards won the race and Newman ended up in third place which meant that he missed out on the final wins wildcard place in the Chase to Bowyer's team mate Martin Truex Jr. If Newman had won the race then the wildcard spot would have been his and Truex would have missed the cut.
After an intense review of the circumstances surrounding Bowyer's spin, NASCAR concluded on Monday that the team had purposefully conspired through the use of covert team orders to manipulate the race outcome in direct contravention of the series rules, and accordingly handed down some of the biggest penalties ever seen in the series' history.
All three of MWR's cars lose 50 points in both the drivers and owners championships, and MWR itself has been fined a record $300,000. The team's executive vice-president and general manager Ty Norris has been indefinitely suspended from NASCAR competition, and all three car crew chiefs placed on probation until the end of 2013.
"Based upon our review of Saturday night's race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organisation attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race," explained Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "As the sport's sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that," he added.
"It's difficult," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "It's not an easy decision to make. The conversations about it were deep ... We penalised it to ask for it to not happen again. It's a message from the sanctioning body to say, 'You can't do this.'
"Remember, it's a sport and it's got a lot of fun attached to it," Helton added. "Every now and then it gets out of bounds and we have to bring it back in order to maintain credibility."
The net result of the points deductions - which are applied to the points standings before they are reset for the Chase - means that Truex is no longer ahead of Newman in the standings and therefore loses his hold on the wildcard and no longer makes the play-offs. Instead, Ryan Newman now finishes in the wildcard position and is duly promoted into the 2013 Chase after all, just two days after the heartbreak of believing that he'd missed out.
"I am proud that NASCAR took a stand with respect to what went on Saturday night at Richmond," said Newman in response to the decision. "I know it was a tough decision to make. With that being said, myself, [crew chief] Matt Borland and this entire #39 team are looking forward to competing for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship."
"Obviously, we're very pleased with NASCAR's decision to provide Ryan Newman's rightful place in this year's Chase," added SHR co-owner Tony Stewart. "NASCAR was put in a very difficult position Saturday night at Richmond and we commend the sanctioning body for taking the time to do the necessary due diligence to ensure that the right call was made."
MWR subsequently released an official statement in which it accepted the penalties and indicated that it had no plans to appeal. "We apologise to NASCAR, our fellow competitors, partners and fans who were disappointed in our actions," said team co-owner Michael Waltrip. "We will learn from this and move on.
"As general manager, Ty Norris has been an integral part of Michael Waltrip Racing since its founding and has my and [co-owner] Rob Kauffman's full support," Waltrip added.
NASCAR said that it had only come to realise that there was something suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the end of the race some hours later, in the early hours of Sunday morning when additional video and audio recordings came to light. But even at the time, there were those who felt that Bowyer's spin simply hadn't felt right.
"He just spun right out, that's the craziest thing I ever saw. He just came right around," said Hendrick Motorsport's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also made the Chase and had been following right behind Bowyer in the #88 when the #15 spun out. "He was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out," he continued. "It was crazy. I don't know what was going on. It was right there, I almost run into it, so I'm glad we were able to get out of there without any trouble."
Asked about the spin immediately after the race, Bowyer insisted that there had been nothing untoward about it. "We had a flat tyre or something," he insisted. "I got down in there and it kept getting tighter and tighter and tighter and then the #88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) got in there and by the time I got back in the gas, he got into me and I had so much wheel in it that it snapped around.
"You never want to be that guy and unfortunately change some things up there at the end," Bowyer had added. "I know it's a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of whacky things," he said when asked if team orders had been involved. "Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don't look too much into it."
Unfortunately for MWR, NASCAR did look into it - with the transcripts of the radio communications between Bowyer and his crew chief Brian Pattie being part of the evidence considered. "The #39 is going to win the race," Pattie is heard telling his driver, to which Bowyer responds: "Well, that kind of sucks."
"Is your arm starting to hurt?" Pattie then radios. "I bet it's hot in there. Itch it." At which point, the #15 suddenly jerks into a spin.
However NASCAR wasn't able to definitively prove that the actual spin was deliberate. "There's not conclusive evidence that the #15's spin was intentional," Helton said. "There's a lot of chatter, there's the video that shows a car spinning, but we didn't see anything conclusive that that was intentional."
That means that despite being widely seen as the primary instrument of the alleged race manipulation, Bowyer comes out of the NASCAR review unaffected in any material sense. While he loses 50 points, he still easily makes the Chase - and because the points are then adjusted to give all Chase contenders 2000 points plus an allowance for races won during the season, Bowyer's points tally going into Chicagoland next weekend remains the same as it was before the penalties.
It was when the team's third driver Brian Vickers was also dragged into the apparent manipulation when he, along with Bowyer, was then called onto pit road by the team under the ensuing caution that NASCAR found the proof it needed. Vickers was audibly surprised by the team call, which had the effect of helping Penske Racing's Joey Logano get the wavearound and move up into a position that ensured he would make the Chase, which also benefited Truex's hopes of making the cut.
"We're probably going to pit here on green," Norris is heard to tell Vickers under the caution. "Are you talking to me?" responded a puzzled Vickers, who continued to query the call. "I don't understand, pit right now?"
"You've got to pit this time. We need that one point," Norris replied, to which Vickers responded, "Ten-four. Do I got a tyre going down?" as he finally followed team instructions. When he subsequently checked up to see if there had been anything wrong with his original tyres, Norris radioed: "I'll see you after the race, Brian. I owe you a kiss."
Helton said that it was this conversation considered to be the 'smoking gun' by NASCAR. By comparison, the equivalent radio conversation with Bowyer was relatively terse, Bowyer simply following the instruction to pit without requiring any reason for a third visit to pit road under the yellow.
"What occurred on the #55 radio at the end of Saturday night's race in Richmond was a split-second decision made by team spotter Ty Norris to bring the #55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase," explained Waltrip in the official MWR statement responding to the penalties. "We regret the decision and its impact."
Fortunately Vickers is currently primarily competing in the Nationwide Series championship and so does not lose driver Cup points as a result of the ruling, although the #55 is still docked the requisite car owner points. In fact the one member of the MWR organisation seemingly out of the loop and not an active part of the plan was Truex himself, who ends up the biggest loser from NASCAR's adjudication as he drops to 17th place in the standings. "I didn't even know it happened until after the race," insisted the driver of the #56 car when told it had been Bowyer who triggered that fateful final caution.
Also a big loser from the events of Saturday night - and who is not helped in any way at all by the penalties - is Hendrick Motorsport's four-time champion Jeff Gordon, whose own bid to make the Chase had been undone by Logano's late reprieve.
"Feel bad for Truex," Gordon tweeted after hearing about the penalties. "He got in under controversy now out due to it. But the guy who started all of this not effected [sic] at all??? Don't agree!"
Asked whether it was appropriate that the penalties announced on Monday evening helped Newman back into the Chase but did nothing at all for Gordon, NASCAR said that it wasn't able to do anything about knock-on effects from the instigating incident.
Helton explained that they could only levy penalties against MWR as an organisation as allowed under the series rule book, specifically for violations of section 12-4 (actions detrimental to stock car racing), and that it was simply coincidental that this had the effect of restoring Newman into the Chase in place of Truex.
"More often than not, you don't know exactly what happened, but the collection of all the information we collected from Saturday night led us to the team-wide reaction as opposed to an individual car," said Helton. "We don't react with a ripple effect of an occurrence because I don't think there is any way we can reasonably do that," he added. "We know from experience, if you try to look at ripple effect, you can't cover all bases that's equitable and credible across board."
Certainly for Newman it had been a whirlwind of a day, which began with his announcement that he was moving to Richard Childress Racing to take over the #31 car from Jeff Burton, just a few weeks after Newman had been told that his tenure at SHR would not be extended past the end of the current season. Ironically, Bowyer was previously an RCR driver until the end of 2011 when he moved to MWR.
Speaking before the penalties were announced on Monday, Newman had spoken about how crushed he'd been to miss out on the Chase cut on Saturday night. "To me, what happened to me Saturday night is the toughest thing that I've ever gone through in any kind of racing in my 30 years of driving because of the way everything went down and, in hindsight, how it hurt that much more," he said.
"I was extremely disappointed to see and hear some of the things that went down, and I think that that's relatively obvious to any fan or non-fan of our sport to know that it kind of goes without saying what happened," he had added.
"I do know that based on my opinion inside a race car and watching and listening and understanding the communication that there was then, that it was not entirely an accident; and the second part of that is maybe somebody could look up for me how many times this year Clint Bowyer spun out all by himself and get me an answer on that, if you don't mind."
Newman now has his answer. But vastly more important than that, he also has his Chase spot back which means that he will join Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and of course Clint Bowyer in competing for this year's Sprint Cup championship title.