Turns out the “action” coming from “The Action Track” didn’t stop until late Monday night, long, long after the final fans departed Richmond International Raceway.
In a shocking twist, NASCAR penalized Michael Waltrip Racing for a spinout by Clint Bowyer on Lap 394 of Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in the final race before the field was set for NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship,” which begins Sunday in Chicago.
Bowyer’s car and move, whether intentional or not, stopped one series of events and set off a chain reaction that will resonate across the racing landscape for the rest of the 2013 season.
Before our full explanation of “Spinout-Gate,” it should be noted Carl Edwards took to the lead off pit road during the final caution, and, on the restart with three laps to go, stormed to the front leaving Paul Menard seemingly sitting still. Edwards cruised around the three-quarter mile track three times to take the checkered flag, temporarily taking the top spot in the Chase standings. Reseeding done after the race to set the Chase field placed him in fifth.
But historians won’t look back at Edwards’ backflip or victory celebration when discussing this Richmond race. The talk will all be about Lap 394.
Ryan Newman, who had to win to make the Chase field, had rolled past competitor after competitor to take the race lead with 10 laps to go. No car seemed able to stop him. But a caution could.
Four laps later, Bowyer’s #15 suddenly spun out, bringing out the yellow. Immediately, the questions began. On television, in the grandstands, and amongst reporters in the infield media center. Bowyer was asked to explain it all after the race.
“I think we had something going wrong. We went from a car capable of winning the race, leading, to…just went straight backwards. Extremely tighter,” Bowyer said. “It’s unfortunate. Trust me, I would have much rather been winning the race and in Victory Lane than in here bummed out. It’s unfortunate. I know it’s fun for you guys to write a lot of whacky things. Go ahead if you want to. But don’t look too much into it.”
Earlier, a very dejected Ryan Newman approached reporters. Newman finished tied for 12th in points with Truex Jr. but Truex won the tiebreaker to make the Chase. Newman’s focus was on his pit crew.
“Obviously, we were in a position to take that second wild card with two wins. Nevertheless, I still feel like we lost it on pit road.”
Earlier, Newman was more pointed when discussing the matter with ESPN immediately after the engines halted.
“We should have been able to come off pit road first if we were a championship contending team. We needed a championship contending pit crew, and we didn’t have that tonight,” Newman opined.
While the teams packed quickly and headed for I-64 late into the Richmond night, early Sunday morning, NASCAR got to work. There were too many
unanswered questions about the Bowyer spin out, too much evidence being discovered. The investigation began. Monday evening, NASCAR wielded the hammer.
All three Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) drivers were docked 50 owner and driver points each, implementing the penalty before points were reset for the Chase. That move left Truex Jr. out of the Chase, replacing him with Newman.
“It is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton said in a statement. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors.”
MWR was also fined $300,000, a record-high fine.
Team owner Waltrip announced Monday night he would not appeal.
As it turned out, though, the smoking gun was not what happened to Bowyer on Lap 394. NASCAR believed the egregious evidence which led to their decision actually occurred in radio contact between teammate Brian Vickers and his spotter, MWR Executive Vice President Ty Norris. When Norris suddenly told Vickers to pit, Vickers seemed surprised. Waltrip confirmed Norris’ motivation in his statement reacting to the penalties Monday night: “What occurred on the #55 radio at the end of Saturday night’s race in Richmond was a split-second decision made by team spotter Ty Norris to bring the #55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase. We regret the decision and its impact.”
Though not necessarily the owner of the smoking gun, Bowyer’s role in the mess is undeniable, even noted by himself. Monday night, he called Newman to personally apologize for the situation. Newman wouldn’t specify what the apology was for, just saying Bowyer was “frustrated in his situation.”
As for Newman, the decision left him shocked, saying “…there is a stand that needs to be taken and I commend them (NASCAR) for that.”
The 48-hour aftermath, sadly, will keep many from forgetting the Federated Auto Parts 400 was one of the more exciting races at RIR in recent memory. There were only five cautions for 29 laps, none for crashes officially, nine leaders, and 17 lead changes. The race was done in under three hours in an average speed of 105.028 MPH.
It was a night that surely should help RIR sell more tickets when NASCAR returns for its April and September races next year. It was a night so filled with drama, it couldn’t hold it all. Just ask Sunday and Monday.