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Redrawing the Chase Picture
The news has travelled from Charlotte to Loudon to Sonoma and every NASCAR fan base in between: Martin Truex Jr. is out of the Chase and Ryan Newman is in. NASCAR made the decision to penalize Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole, and Truex Jr. and his No. 56 team took the fall.
In hours leading up to the announcement and the time since, fans have made a lot of statements. No one is happy. Many fans are pointing fingers at Clint Bowyer, others are questioning if it's ok to do this after the fact, and still more are wondering why there's no justice for Jeff Gordon. NASCAR President Mike Helton did his best to explain the difficult decision on Monday night, and it's best to gain his perspective before casting judgment.
Late in the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night, Newman led at Richmond International Raceway. With a win, he would earn himself a Chase Wild Card spot and knock out Truex. That's when things got interesting, as Bowyer went for a frontstretch spin that brought out a caution to regroup the field for a restart with three laps to go.
During the caution, Newman led the field down pit road, but a slower pit stop shuffled him back and he ultimately finished third in the race. Upon the restart, Bowyer and his teammate, Brian Vickers, were told to head down pit road for a green flag stop, to which Vickers seemed confused.
According to ESPN's transcription of the radio call, the conversation sounded like this:
"We're probably going to pit here on green," spotter Ty Norris said.
"Are you talking to me?" a surprised Vickers asked.
Vickers continued to question the call, at one point asking, "I don't understand, pit right now?"
"You've got to pit this time. We need that one point," Norris replied.
"10-4. Do I got a tire going down?" Vickers asked.
The result of the unexpected pit stops led to Joey Logano finishing in front of the two cars and put him one point in front of Jeff Gordon for 10th place in the standings. That meant Truex Jr. claimed the second Wild Card spot as opposed to Logano (who would have gotten it if he'd been 11th), and it left Gordon out of the Chase.
This is where the debate and the ruling gets sticky and, frankly, uncomfortable.
On Monday night, NASCAR announced that Michael Waltrip Racing would be fined an unprecedented $300,000, that General Manager Ty Norris (also Vickers's spotter) would be suspended indefinitely, and that all three teams (the No. 15, No. 55 and No. 56) would be docked 50 driver and owner points, which would be assessed after the Richmond race (not after the Chase was reset).
Many fans continue to blame Clint Bowyer for his spinning, but that has no role in the penalty. While he didn't absolve the action completely, Helton was clear in stating that the action that was punished was the call to send the No. 55 down pit road.
"There's not conclusive evidence that the 15 spin was intentional," said Helton. "There's a lot of chatter, there's the video that shows a car spinning, but we didn't see anything conclusive that that was intentional.
"The preponderance of things that happened by Michael Waltrip Racing Saturday night, the most clear was the direction that the 55 driver was given and the confusion around it, and then the conversation following that occurrence is the most clear part of that preponderance."
Again, this is where the ruling gets mucky. The $300,000 and indefinite suspension of Norris for making the call? Based on NASCAR's assessment of the situation, that's understandable.
Helton did a good job laying out why he believed this to be against the sport's best interest and why he punished it accordingly.
"Occasionally, and particularly our role, is to regulate the sport and police it and officiate it so that everybody has got a reasonable playing field to participate in," he said. "So we have days like today that we run across and have challenges that our role is to react to."
What is difficult to fathom is the resulting outcome of the penalty in driver points, and its major impact on the championship.
To use an example from a different sport: on June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga pitched what should have been a perfect game for the Detroit Tigers. On the final out of the game, first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded a ground ball and threw to Galarraga who was covering first. The runner, Jason Donald, was out by half a step, but umpire Jim Joyce missed the call and ruled him safe.
After the game, Joyce addressed the media, "I missed the call ... and there's nobody that feels worse than I do ... I took a perfect game away from that kid." He admitted his mistake, he admitted that Galarraga should have pitched a perfect game, but that doesn't mean Galarraga will ever be credited with one on that fateful night. What happened happened, and Major League Baseball isn't going to rewrite history.
Unfortunately, that's what's happened with the point deduction. Truex, who didn't do anything wrong in finishing seventh, has been removed from the Chase. Newman, who based on NASCAR's assessment of the infractions (which weren't related to the Bowyer spin) was unaffected by the actions, and is now in the Chase. Logano, who would have earned a Wild Card and not an automatic bid had it not been for the pit stops gets three bonus points for a win as an automatic bid. And, Gordon, who would have earned an automatic bid, is still out of the Chase.
Meanwhile, the No. 15 and No. 55 cars, those that headed down pit road under green are more or less unaffected. The No. 15 lost driver and owner points that were irrelevant, having clinched the Chase spot, and will start the postseason on a level playing field with 2,000 points. The No. 55 on the other hand will not make the Chase in owner's points, and Brian Vickers is ineligible for Sprint Cup Series points due to his Nationwide Series standing.
The reality is that there's no appropriate way to rewrite history. Civil War historians can't leave out the Battle of Gettysburg in an effort to make our darkest moment in history seem less bloody. World War II buffs can't leave out the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan (despite the destruction, they were what ultimately forced the Japanese Empire to surrender). And, NASCAR can't shuffle the Chase field retroactively without having an adverse effect.
The hefty fine? Okay.
The suspension of Norris? Fair enough.
The removal of Truex from the Chase? That's a more controversial determination, as he, personally, had no direct involvement in the incident.
On the flip side, the outcome for Newman wasn't affected by the penalized actions. His fans would be quick to point out that he was leading the race before Bowyer's spin, but NASCAR didn't penalize that spin.
Most importantly, Newman entered pit road in the lead on the final caution and he didn't leave that way. That was the point where he went from controlling his own fate to losing a Chase spot, and he admitted as much.
"I told (crew chief) Matt (Borland) when we came into this race that we couldn't make up everything we'd missed in the first 25," said Newman immediately following the race. "Winning would have changed everything and that last caution definitely hurt us, but we got killed on pit road. There's no doubt about that ... We should have been able to come on pit road first and come off pit road first. If we were a championship contending team, we need a championship contending pit crew, and we didn't have that tonight."
Those were some harsh words for the men that work on the No. 39 car, but it was the most indisputable thing that we've heard since the checkered flag waved at Richmond. If Newman had won that race, he would have been in with two wins, Truex would have been out with one, and the spot to watch would have been Logano vs. Gordon for the 10th and final automatic bid.
Despite the ruling that resulted in Newman's making the Chase, the fan base still trying to figure out what went wrong is that of Gordon's No. 24. Without the unscheduled pit stops, he would have claimed the 10th automatic bid and left Logano in 11th, where he would have taken the second Chase spot (not Newman).
"It's typical for us to look at what occurred, and react to what occurred," said Helton. "We don't react to the ripple effect of an occurrence because I don't think there's anyway we can reasonably do that. The 50 points across every Michael Waltrip team is -- once the decision was made this afternoon, we revert back to the end of the Richmond race, and we take the points total from the 26th race of the 2013 season, apply our reaction, and then go forward."
In short, Newman was in the right place at the right time to earn a Chase spot. NASCAR didn't take into consideration that he had led the race a few laps earlier and try to make it up to him. He just benefitted from the circumstances of the penalty. Hypothetically, if a driver like Brad Keselowski had a win and was positioned somewhere between Truex and Newman in the points (if they hadn't been tied), he would have made the Chase and not Newman.
Statements that claim that the final Wild Card was rightfully Newman's position are inaccurate. In NASCAR's determination, Michael Waltrip Racing deserved a punishment and the penalty to the No. 56 resulted in an opportunity for a different driver to qualify for the Chase, based on points and wins. While the punishment to Truex is debatable, the process used by the sanctioning body is clear.
To reiterate, there's no correct way to handle this. NASCAR was put inside a cave and then wedged between a rock and a hard place, and the fault of that falls back on MWR, which has accepted the mistake.
"What occurred on the No. 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 No. 55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase," the team said in a written statement. "We regret the decision and its impact. We apologize to NASCAR, our fellow competitors, partners and fans who were disappointed in our actions. We will learn from this and move on."
While the decision and the resulting Chase realignment is open to debate, what's not up for discussion is that NASCAR took this action based on what it believed to be in the best interest of the future of the sport.
"We penalize to ask for it to not happen again," said Helton. "It's not necessarily a penalty to take it out on somebody, as it's been presented in the past. It's a message from the league or the sanctioning body saying you can't do this and expect us not to react to it."
For the sake of everyone from the NASCAR President to the owners and drivers to the fans, there's a hope that these harsh penalties will help prevent this sort of uncomfortable controversy from arising in the future.