It's Friday 13th, 2013 and Jeff Gordon has just become the 13th man in the 12-driver line-up of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. It might just make him the luckiest man in the sport.
In a special news conference on Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and NASCAR president Mike Helton made the announcement that left even the most experienced journalists covering the series reeling with shock. The decision to promote Gordon into the 2013 Chase followed days of investigations into the latest allegations of race manipulation at last weekend's race at Richmond International Speedway.
On Monday, NASCAR concluded that Michael Waltrip Racing had improperly used team orders to affect the race outcome so that one of their cars, the #56 of Martin Truex Jr., made it into the Chase. Penalties imposed on the team included a record fine and a points deduction that dropped Truex out of the Chase and promoted Ryan Newman into the play-offs in his place. However, NASCAR insisted at the time that they could go nothing about the 'ripple effects' of MWR's actions that had seen Jeff Gordon lose his place in the Chase to Penske Racing's Joey Logano.
However, further team radio transcripts uncovered midweek by The Associated Press
suggested that Penske had attempted to strike a deal with Front Row Racing to ask David Gilliland to allow Logano past to gain a vital position that put the #22 into the Chase at Gordon's expense. After review, NASCAR said that it did not have enough explicit proof to conclude that the teams had actually engaged in collusion, but decided that some sort of action was required to maintain the integrity of this year's championship.
“Based on all of our findings this week, we determined both Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing organisations would be placed on probation for the remainder of this season,” announced France. "Additionally, based upon the totality of our findings, to be totally fair and equitable we decided that adding a 13th car to this year's Chase is the appropriate action."
That 13th car is the #24 of Hendrick Motorsport's four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has had to wait for six long days to get his place in the Chase.
“Beginning with our decision Monday, which resulted in an unprecedented team penalty, and continuing with further examination of actions involving two other race teams, it is clear to us that attempts to manipulate the results impacted the Chase field," France continued. "The integrity of our sport remains the cornerstone of NASCAR, and our actions this week speak to our commitment to ensure a level playing field for all competitors."
NASCAR also said that it would be holding a mandatory meeting with drivers, owners, crew chiefs and other team personnel on Saturday to address the issues that had arisen post-Richmond and how the sport would move forward regarding the rules and ethics of racing. The meeting would not be open to media.
"As you're well aware, we've been looking at a lot of video, audio and timing and scoring information and other data from the Richmond race," said Helton. "What we've decided is in addition to what other actions we've taken, we're going to put Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing both on probation for the balance of the year for actions detrimental."