NASCAR looking into Bowyer’s Chase-altering spin at Richmond (UPDATED)

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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?

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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