JOLIET, Ill. — Everything could have been handled better from the moment Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond, triggering the biggest credibility crisis in NASCAR history.
That spin started as the well-intentioned desire to help a teammate earn a valuable spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, and with a little honesty, a few deep breaths and some clear thinking, it might have ended there.
Instead, the situation snowballed, and NASCAR quickly had a full-blown scandal on its hands.
Where did things go so wrong?:
• There was no spin on the spin: Bowyer’s attempt to bring out a caution was at minimum poor sportsmanship, but not uncommon in NASCAR. It just happened to be a big race with high stakes and a lot of people watching. His Michael Waltrip Racing crew chief had the bright idea to help Martin Truex Jr. stave off elimination from the Chase, and instructed Bowyer over his radio to “itch” his arm.
Bowyer did have poison oak, but the command was so bizarre it was immediately recognized as an obvious code word. Bowyer also did himself no favors after the race, denying intent during a deer-in-headlights interview on live TV.
When audio the next day revealed MWR general manager Ty Norris ordering a confused Brian Vickers to pit late in the race in an attempt to help Truex, NASCAR suddenly had a serious problem.
• The wrong penalty was issued: NASCAR wanted to send a message in issuing serious sanctions against MWR, and it did with a $300,000 fine, the indefinite suspension of Norris and kicking Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, the driver who would have made it before Bowyer’s spin.
But Bowyer got off virtually unscathed because NASCAR said it couldn’t prove the spin was deliberate.
• Different Standards: Once Vickers’ action had been singled out, teams all across the garage had to worry. They’d all been trading favors forever and many were at Richmond.
It didn’t take long to discover Joey Logano had help making the Chase – first from Vickers and Bowyer, who in aiding Truex had to help Logano – but also from fellow Ford driver David Gilliland.
Front Row Motorsports offered to have Gilliland move over for Logano during radio discussions about negotiating with deep-pocketed Penske Racing.
Penske and Front Row got a slap on the wrist with probation and a new rule banning digitial radios and anyone but the spotter from the roof.
The one thing NASCAR did get right was defining new “rules of the road” in France’s Saturday meeting. Banned going forward is any sort of action that could be considered as artificially altering the outcome of the race.
Drivers now have one job – drive as hard as they can, every lap, from start to finish.
Sometime in the early morning hours Monday, after teammate Matt Kenseth had beaten him to the finish line in the opening Chase race, Kyle Busch noted he’d done everything possible to win the race. “100 percent,” he shrugged.
One hundred percent, indeed.