CHARLOTTE — NASCAR fans love a good conspiracy theory. All that time spent watching left turns leaves the mind plenty of room to speculate.
What we have now, however, is more than a theory. It’s a fact that we are dealing with the juiciest, ugliest NASCAR scandal of the past decade. Michael Waltrip Racing’s cockamamie scheme to game the system and get another car into the Chase for the Sprint Cup has called into question the very integrity of the sport.
That’s too bad, because you can’t paint all NASCAR drivers with the same broad brush. It’s like saying all journalists are crooked because disgraced reporter Jayson Blair once made up a lot of stuff while working for the New York Times.
The stench remains, however, from what has happened over the past few days in NASCAR. And it will continue to hover as the biggest story of the Chase – not the beginning of the playoffs, as NASCAR officials would wish. This is a body blow to the sport.
One of the problems in a scandal that keeps shooting off in different directions is NASCAR didn’t do enough to penalize MWR. Most notably, Clint Bowyer got away almost Scot-free and remains one of the dozen drivers eligible for the 2013 championship.
But what the ruling body of the sport didn’t do, MWR’s sponsors might. What company really wants its name plastered all over a car for an outfit that would do something like that?
And in NASCAR, sponsors carry an enormous stick – in some ways, bigger than the sport’s official leaders. No sponsors, no cars. MWR’s very future as an organization is in danger now.
To review briefly: Bowyer suspiciously spun late at Saturday night’s race in Richmond, Va. Brian Vickers took a green-flag pit stop for no apparent reason. Both moves seemed to most observers to be designed to benefit their teammate, Martin Truex Jr., who was on the Chase bubble.
Truex eventually would get in the Chase that night, only to miss it when NASCAR decided MWR had tried to “manipulate the outcome” and penalized Truex Jr., Bowyer and Vickers 50 points apiece. That knocked Truex out and put Ryan Newman – who had been leading the race at the time of Bowyer’s spin – into the Chase.
MWR was also fined $300,000, which was a good move by NASCAR. But if I ran NASCAR, I also would have added Jeff Gordon to the Chase field, because he was in position to make the Chase, too, until Bowyer’s strange spin triggered Saturday night’s events.
To those who say a 13th driver would mess up the field – that’s just not true. Twelve is an arbitrary number. It used to be 10 in the playoffs, remember? It’s not like this is the NCAA tournament and everyone goes head-to-head each week.
And if you absolutely have to keep Bowyer in the Chase – he claims his spin wasn’t intentional, although the circumstantial evidence is daunting – then at least start him well behind everybody else in the Chase by giving him an additional points penalty. If Bowyer wins the championship this season, there will be an asterisk beside it forever.
Bowyer now is trying to apologize without admitting any guilt, which is an impossible tightrope to walk. Gordon isn’t happy. NASCAR fans are in an uproar. MWR is trying to backpedal and keep its sponsors.
It’s a mess.
And make no mistake, there was no way NASCAR could clean up the mess with one swoop, even if the penalties had been perfect.
As I said, this one stinks and it will for a while. It makes everyone understand how multicar teams lead to less competition and more potential cheating. Saturday will be a night remembered by racing fans for all the wrong reasons.
And if karma hits the accelerator as she should now and doesn’t spin out because of an unusual itch, the troubles for MWR are only beginning.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler