One day later, Clint Bowyer addresses NASCAR penalties (UPDATED)

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NASCAR may have severely punished Michael Waltrip Racing for “manipulating the outcome” of Saturday’s Chase-deciding event at Richmond International Raceway, but it would appear that a wide margin of people believe NASCAR didn’t do enough.

Clint Bowyer, the man who started all of this controversy when he spun out with seven laps to go in the Federated Auto Parts 400, may have been docked 50 points along with his MWR teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers. But Bowyer’s still in the Chase, whereas Truex no longer is.

However, Bowyer will still have to face constant questions about his actions Saturday night. That questioning began today, when he made a visit to ESPN as part of NASCAR’s “Chase Across America” media tour.

Before Bowyer’s lunch-time appearance on SportsCenter, Ryan Newman told ESPN that he had received a call from him regarding the events of Saturday night.

According to Newman, who ascended to the second Wild Card spot after Truex was booted out of the Chase, Bowyer apologized – telling him that he had been “sick to his stomach” over the matter.

But while Bowyer felt that the phone call “needed to be made,” he wouldn’t answer a question about whether the call was an admission that he had spun out intentionally at RIR.

“Let’s not dig too much into this,” Bowyer said. “I’ve dealt with that the last couple of days – there are a lot of opinions on the things that happened. Obviously, I gave my interview after the races of what happened.

“You know, we’ve been penalized – the biggest penalty in NASCAR history. We’re gonna get through this as a race team. There’s a lot of racing left with what’s going on. The Chase is alive, it starts this weekend. And somehow, through all of this, I’ve got to get my focus back onto the Chase – business as usual.

“I have a lot of fans that have followed us through this and have been behind me, and I appreciate that. For the fans that don’t agree or are upset, I apologize.”

A follow-up question on what exactly he was apologizing for yielded a response from Bowyer that wasn’t especially clear.

“I went from leading the race into the middle of a disaster,” he said. “I’m extremely disappointed in the way the race was. I could’ve easily have been in Victory Lane. It’s a bad deal, a bad deal all the way around for MWR. Again, we’ve been penalized for this. We stand by our actions and we own up to them, and we’re gonna get through this together and go on.”

Bowyer then got grilled by Cup driver-turned-ESPN analyst Ricky Craven, who asked him about how he plans to deal with his fellow racers at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend.

“I’m gonna go there like I always have – I’m gonna go there, put my helmet on, and compete and race as hard as I can for a win for [sponsor] 5-Hour Energy, for Toyota and for all of our partners,” Bowyer said.

“It’s a bad situation. It is. If you think I can look into a crystal ball and tell you everything that happened after that race and do all of this, it’s crazy to think that. We’re all competitive, we’ve all been in this sport a long time and we’ve all seen a lot of wild things happen over the years…There’s only one thing that I can promise you: Chicago’s gonna happen this weekend and I’ll be ready.”

Bowyer also talked about how he and MWR will deal with the issue as a team moving forward, noting the inherent pressures involved in NASCAR’s championship stretch.

“Let me tell you something, people don’t realize how much pressure is around the Chase,” he said. “I don’t want this story to be the story of the Chase. There’s tremendous amounts of pressure.

“There’s a lot on the line for a lot of race teams, and a whole year’s work went into this. We were locked into the Chase weeks ago. We’ve been preparing for this for a long time, and I feel like we’ve got a shot, and I’m excited.”

But Craven, who said he’d give Bowyer the “benefit of the doubt,” still got in some words that likely resonate with the portion of the NASCAR fan base that believes Bowyer was in the wrong at Richmond.

“You wanna talk about pressure? Look at the economy and the people that spent their hard-earned money to fly to Richmond, to buy a ticket, to participate in the weekend, and they might have felt like they got robbed,” he said.

“I’m only bringing that point up to suggest that this is much bigger than any one of us. What happened Saturday night put into play the integrity of the sport.”

UPDATE (1:56 p.m. ET): Clint Bowyer had a second live SportsCenter interview in which he talked about the Chase controversy surrounding him and Michael Waltrip Racing. As you’d figure, some of the territory covered in “Round Two” was relatively the same as that of “Round One.”

But there were some differences:

1) In the second interview, Bowyer directly addressed a tweet from Jeff Gordon that said he did not agree with “the guy who started all of this” not losing his spot in the Chase. While doing so, he referenced their infamous post-race confrontation last fall at Phoenix.

“Everybody knows Gordon and I have had our issues. I got wiped out of the championship chase with two races to go and he got penalized. No different than I got penalized at MWR.”

Gordon was fined $100,000 and lost 25 points for his role in the 2012 Phoenix incident.

2) In the first interview, Bowyer seemed to dance around the question of whether he had spun intentionally at Richmond. But in the second interview, when he got the same query, he responded “No.”

He was then asked about the matter of no one else being around him at the time of the spin.

“Again, how did we go from a car fast enough to lead the race – we couldn’t even line up,” Bowyer replied. “I went straight backwards. Trust me, when the 15 car’s on the race track, it goes forward, and if it doesn’t, something’s wrong.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.