NASCAR Acts Fast To Finger Fix

A certain level of thievery is expected in racing. This is especially true in NASCAR, which proudly honors its bootlegging past as a key to its attraction and image.

Teams have to be subtle working around the rule book. Be too brazen and the authorities take notice. That’s what happened to Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) following one of the strangest place-fixing actions on record.

Drivers have been granting aid and accommodation to teammates for decades. Typically, a driver who is either out of contention or who has secured a berth into an event will turn down the aggression, let a team-mate pass or act as a blocker.

This is an expected and relatively honorable way to hand out an assist. But to suddenly change direction on an open track is quite different. That’s what happened Sept. 7 at the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond. As expected, NASCAR took notice.

For those who missed the action or fail to appreciate the excitement generated by cars running 190 mph six inches off the tail section of their competitors, here’s a recap of events.

Ryan Newman was leading the race with seven laps remaining. He was 13th in Sprint Cup points and likely needed a win to qualify for the Cup.

Suddenly, Clint Bowyer, who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, spun out, sending the field into a caution. Bowyer wasn’t being bumped nor was he coming out of a turn, he just spun out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was behind Bowyer, called it the craziest thing he ever saw and radioed his crew chief, saying, “Looked a little intentional to me there, bud. He was on the brakes in the middle of the corner trying to spin it out, trying to slow down.”

After restarting with three laps to go, Bowyer and Brian Vickers, another MWR driver, suddenly pitted, allowing Joey Logano to move ahead of Jeff Gordon, bumping the four-time champion out of the Cup chase and securing a wild-card entry for MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. One doesn’t have to be Richard Petty to recognize something was amiss, especially after radio transmissions between MWR race crews and their drivers offered enough evidence to show the actions were more than mere coincidence.

MWR’s executive vice president Ty Norris was heard telling a surprised Vickers to pit, saying, “We need that point,” and later promising a big hug for the driver at the end of the race. Bowyer also was chatting with his crew. Moments before spinning out, Bowyer got a call from his spotter, who said, “No. 39 (Newman) was going to win the race.”

“That sucks,” responded Bowyer, before the spotter made some strange comments about Bowyer’s arm hurting and the driver being tired.

To its credit, NASCAR acted quickly.

Michael Waltrip Racing got hammered. The team was fined $300,000. Norris and Vickers’ spotter was suspended indefinitely, Bowyer, Truex and Vickers were fined 50 points and put on probation through the end of the year along with the team’s three crew chiefs. The points deduction dropped Truex from the Chase and opened the way for Newman’s return as the second alternate. Bowyer remains in the eighth position.

NASCAR also made things right with Gordon by creating a 13th position in the Chase. NASCAR uncovered evidence that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports (FRM) conspired to allow Joey Logano to pass FRM’s David Gilliland late in the race, securing Logano’s spot in the Chase over Gordon.

MWR, Penske and FRM committed the unforgivable sin of embarrassing NASCAR, which may mete out further punishment. A good start would be removing Bowyer and Logano from the Chase. NASCAR says it doesn’t have the necessary proof to do so, meaning it may be up to drivers to finish the job.

NASCAR is self-policing, and no one should be surprised if a suspected driver suddenly finds himself in the wall at a critical point in the race. That’s racetrack justice.