While NASCAR is working feverishly to point out all the good things that happened last year, including the rollout of its Generation-6 race car, it can’t escape one of the biggest scandals in the sport’s history.
It happened Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway, the final race in the regular season that set the field for the 10-race Chase for the Championship.
It started with Clint Bowyer’s single-car spin that brought out a caution and allowed his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. a chance to move up during the restart to claim a spot in the playoffs.
It got worse when Bowyer and Brian Vickers were ordered to make a late pit stop so Truex could move up two more spots in the final rundown.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was behind Bowyer before the spin and he immediately said the spin was intentional. NASCAR also had audio of the entire Waltrip organization working together to affect the outcome of the race.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was evidence Front Row Motorsports’ David Gilliland was told over his team radio to let Joey Logano pass him for a position late in the race to help Logano’s chances to make the Chase.
Both Gilliland and Logano drive Fords.
Cheating in racing usually has to do with illegal engine parts, tricked-up tires or gasoline additives. But what happened at Richmond was the first time the sport was rocked by drivers taking a dive.
NASCAR president Mike Helton said as much when he admitted before the final race the shenanigans at Richmond were “a defining moment.”
Truex and Logano both made the cut for the playoffs at the expense of Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. NASCAR kicked Truex out and decided to expand the Chase to 13 drivers by adding both Newman and Gordon.
Waltrip was fined $300,000 and Truex’s sponsor, NAPA, reacted by pulling its funding.
NASCAR made it worse a week later at Chicagoland Speedway by telling every team it must compete at a 100-percent level at all times. Most drivers were insulted by that directive because it suggested drivers don’t always try to win.
It also gave credence to those who believe outcomes are affected too much by team orders and caution flags.
Earnhardt said it might take time to for everyone to understand just how much the sport was hurt by “Spingate.” At the same time, he said everyone knows with open radio channels and an ever-pressing media, nobody will tolerate that kind of cheating again.
“That was a heavy impact, and I think that sent shock waves through the sport,” Earnhardt said. “Once we get a little further past this and realize how big a deal that was for Truex to be moved out, how big for his team, organization and sponsors, it’s going to be profound.
“No matter how much you think you can camouflage this through smoke and mirrors, the media or fans can connect the dots,” he said.