Was Clint Bowyer's late spinout at Richmond in Saturday night's final qualifying race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup fair or foul?
That's the question that countless NASCAR fans have been asking, further prodded by allegations of intentional cheating and conspiracy theories on social media.
NASCAR said Sunday that it will review all video related to the incident to determine if there indeed was subterfuge and impropriety.
NASCAR president Mike Helton told the Associated Press (via ESPN) before the Camping World Truck Series race in Iowa:
We didn't see anything that indicated that anything like that was taking place. And it's natural when everything was as close as it was between who was going to get in and not go in to scratch your heads and try to figure out and wonder why.
But we didn't see anything initially (Saturday) night that indicated that, but certainly we'll go back through all the video and everything to be sure, because we take the responsibility very serious to be sure that it's -- that everybody has had a fair chance.
Let's break things down—and then you decide what's fair or foul.
Fair: Bowyer insists he had a tire going down, and indeed, his tire ultimately blew out and shredded as he made his way back to pit road.
"We had a flat tire or something. It just snapped around," Bowyer said (via the Associated Press), later adding, "I know it's a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don't look too much into it."
Foul: In-car audio between Bowyer and his team gave the impression that a type of code may have been used to prompt Bowyer to intentionally spin.
"Thirty-nine (Ryan Newman) is going to win the race," Bowyer was told over his radio, according to AP.
Then, Bowyer's crew chief, Brian Pattie, made a couple of rather odd statements just before Bowyer's car spun: "Is your arm starting to hurt?"
Shortly after, he said, "I bet it's hot in there. Itch it."
Foul: When the race restarted with three laps to go, another peculiar exchange came over the Michael Waltrip Racing team radio, this time involving part-time teammate Brian Vickers.
As the AP reported:
Vickers was told by MWR general manager Ty Norris to pit because "we need that 1 point."
"We're probably going to pit here on green," Norris says.
"Are you talking to me?" a surprised Vickers asks.
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 1 point," Norris replies.
"10-4. Do I got a tire going down?" Vickers asked.
Vickers then pitted as the field went green. When he asked after if his crew found anything with the tire, Norris replied, "I'll see you after the race, Brian, I owe you a kiss."
That allowed Joey Logano to move into 10th place in the live in-race Sprint Cup season standings. With Logano earning a guaranteed berth reserved for the top 10 finishing drivers and knocking out Jeff Gordon in the process, it opened up a wild-card spot that ultimately went to Martin Truex Jr. to make the Chase.
Gordon has no wins this season, while Truex has one. As a result, Truex moved up into the wild-card spot while Gordon missed the Chase by one point by being unable to maintain a spot in the top 10. It was the only way he would have been guaranteed to make the playoffs.
Fair: Ryan Newman pitted after Bowyer spun, entering with the lead but leaving in fifth place. Try as he might to get back to the front of the field and win the race, which would have guaranteed him a spot in the Chase, Newman finished third and ultimately missed the Chase.
If Newman had any inkling that Bowyer intentionally spun to bring out the caution, don't you think he would have confronted Bowyer for any alleged shenanigans?
Instead, Newman blamed his pit crew, according to Tom Jensen of Fox Sports:
We came down pit road first. Carl (Edwards) came off pit road second. We should have been at least second at that point. We didn't do our job on pit road. Four tires won the race. We were the first car to be in position on four tires and we didn't get the job done.
We did everything we needed to up until the last caution. I'm not sure exactly what unfolded there. We still had the opportunity to win it on pit road and we didn't.
To his credit, Newman battled back from leaving pit road fifth, but it wasn't enough. He needed a win to become the lone representative of Stewart-Haas Racing in the Chase.
Unfortunately, Newman came up short. He even said so, per Jensen:
Coming from (fifth) to third in a couple laps is not bad, but we had to win, so it's disappointing.
Didn't expect to make up for everything we didn't get in the first 25 (races) in the last race, but we were in position. We did everything we needed to with the exception of the (final) pit stop... 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. It's disappointing. We'll go on.
Foul: The rush to judgment was immediate. ABC's chief NASCAR analysts all vehemently claimed Bowyer pulled a fast one.
Fans lit up social media, including Twitter and Facebook, crying foul.
While NASCAR did nothing after the race, there has been enough of a hue and cry from fans and media alike that officials are indeed reviewing all sources of video from both in-house and ABC cameras to determine if something is truly fishy.
Conclusion: If, after checking out the video, in-car audio and other evidence, NASCAR agrees with incensed fans and media alike, it has perhaps one of the biggest scandals on its hands in both the 10-year history of the Chase and the organization's 65 years.
Penalties and fines may still be assessed if NASCAR does an about-face and decides that there were rules violations, if not complete disregard of fair play and good sportsmanship.
While the Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the next several days could become some of the most important in the sport's annals.
If NASCAR finds violations and doesn't do anything, it will indirectly give tacit approval of teams continuing to game the system, not to mention run the risk of losing a lot of fans.
And if it does try to dish out penalties and fines, whom does it penalize? Vickers, who wasn't even eligible for the Chase? MWR? Bowyer? Pattie? How do you penalize against something that, at least on the surface, could potentially have been what it appeared, a blown-out tire?
No matter what it does, NASCAR is sitting in a damned if it does and damned if it doesn't conundrum. It can't change the outcome of the race or the Chase and allow Newman and Gordon entry while kicking out Logano (who did nothing at all) and Truex. If it did that, it would only muck things up even more in a situation that has gotten too murky already.
What will NASCAR do? Better yet, what would you do if you had any say in all this?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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