JOLIET – Everything could have been handled better from the moment Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond to trigger the biggest credibility crisis in NASCAR history.
That spin started as the well-intentioned desire to help a teammate earn a valuable spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, and with a little honesty, a few deep breaths and some clear thinking, it might have ended there.
Instead, the situation snowballed, and NASCAR had a full-blown scandal on its hands.
So on the eve of the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, chairman Brian France tersely ordered all the competitors to give 100 percent at all times going forward.
That’s right, the lasting slogan of this dark chapter for NASCAR will forever be “give 100 percent.”
Where did things go so wrong?:
There was no spin on the spin: Bowyer’s attempt to bring out a caution was at minimum poor sportsmanship, but not uncommon in NASCAR. It just happened to be a big race with high stakes and a lot of people watching. His Michael Waltrip Racing crew chief had the bright idea to help Martin Truex Jr. stave off elimination from the Chase, and instructed Bowyer over his radio to “itch” his arm.
Bowyer did have poison oak, but the command was so bizarre it was immediately recognized as an obvious code word. Bowyer also did himself no favors after the race, denying intent during a deer-in-headlights interview on live TV.
The wrong penalty was issued: NASCAR wanted to send a message in issuing serious sanctions against MWR, and it did with a $300,000 fine, the indefinite suspension of Norris and kicking Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, the driver who would have made it before Bowyer’s spin.
But Bowyer got off virtually unscathed, because NASCAR said it couldn’t prove the spin was deliberate.
That incensed Jeff Gordon, who wanted Bowyer punished for starting the mess. When Bowyer got off with his title hopes intact, it created two problems NASCAR never saw coming:
It forced Bowyer and MWR to continue to lie about deliberately spinning, because admitting guilt now would earn a retroactive penalty. Had NASCAR just docked him six points, he’d be in a deep hole but could try to climb out with a clear conscience.
Second, in citing Vickers’ late trip down pit road as the smoking gun, NASCAR singled out one of many wink-and-nod practices that goes on all the time between multi-car teams.
Different standards: Once Vickers’ action was singled out, teams all across the garage had to worry. They’d been trading favors forever, and many were at Richmond.
It didn’t take long to discover Joey Logano had help – first from Vickers and Bowyer, who in aiding Truex had to help Logano – but also from fellow Ford driver David Gilliland.
The one thing NASCAR did get right was defining new “rules of the road” in France’s Saturday meeting. Banned going forward is any sort of action that could be considered as artificially altering the outcome of the race.
Sometime in the early morning hours Monday, after teammate Matt Kenseth had beaten him to the finish line in the opening Chase race, Kyle Busch noted he’d done everything possible to win the race.
“100 percent,” he shrugged.
One hundred percent, indeed.