UPDATE (1:40 p.m. ET): The Associated Press is reporting that NASCAR is now reviewing evidence to determine whether Michael Waltrip Racing did indeed try to orchestrate the outcome of last night’s Chase-deciding race at Richmond International Raceway.
NASCAR President Mike Helton has told the AP that Race Control did not believe Clint Bowyer’s spin with seven laps to go was suspicious, but also said that the sanctioning body would look for evidence of wrongdoing.
NASCAR has also released an official statement: “NASCAR is reviewing Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway per protocol and has no plans for further statement until that process is complete.”
A day later, the debate is still raging among NASCAR fans over whether or not Bowyer intentionally spun out to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. make the post-season.
By now, we’ve all seen the in-car video of Bowyer going around coming off of Turn 4 with seven laps to go. The incident effectively ended what would have been a season-saving run to the front from Ryan Newman, and led to a poor pit stop for him under the final yellow.
He went in first, came out fifth, and could only move up to third by the checkered flag. Truex, who finished seventh, wound up earning the final Wild Card spot on a tie-breaker over Newman.
Bowyer’s spin also impacted Jeff Gordon’s bid to make the post-season after he had rallied from two laps down earlier in the night. The final restart after the spin was a bad one for Gordon, and Joey Logano managed to beat him to the 10th and final spot in the Chase by a single point.
For his part, Bowyer blamed an ill-handling No. 15 Toyota as the cause of his spin. But everything about what’s seen and heard in the in-car video – “Is your arm starting to hurt? I bet it’s hot – itch it” – is probably not doing him or MWR any favors right now.
And as USA Today’s Nate Ryan relays in his analysis of the situation, there are other pieces of evidence that appear to be damaging – Bowyer managing to lose positions in the pits after his relatively harmless spin and another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, running well off the pace on the final lap of the event.
In the NASCAR world, controversy can – and most of the time, is – seen to be a good thing. But this time, it’s not.
Newman’s final stop may have, ultimately, been the direct cause of him missing out on the Chase (it led him to throw his pit crew under the bus afterwards on national television), but if not for Bowyer’s spin, it was likely that Newman would’ve won the race and clinched a Wild Card berth.
And maybe, if the race had stayed green, Gordon would’ve been able to peel off the two extra positions he needed in order to knock Logano out and race his way into the post-season, just like he did at RIR one year ago.
Two brilliant charges from both Newman and Gordon, dashed in what appears – at least, on the surface – to be a highly suspect bit of gamesmanship.
But as Ryan points out, what exactly can NASCAR do about it? Saturday’s results can’t be undone – and as long as there are multi-car squads running around, the prospect of such shenanigans will always be there, too.
It all leads toward what may be seen as a chilling question by some of the stock car faithful: Has the moment finally arrived for NASCAR where the issue of “team orders” becomes a regular, race-to-race controversy?