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.”

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.