NASCAR has been criticized countless times over the years for looking the other way when teams have bent—if not blatantly broken—the rules.
But on Monday, the sanctioning body not only got it right, but it also flexed its muscle to show it meant business, assessing a number of unprecedented penalties against several members of Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
NASCAR fined MWR a record $300,000, suspended team general manager Ty Norris indefinitely, docked driver Clint Bowyer 50 driver points (prior to the points being reset for the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and also docked driver Brian Vickers 50 points in the standings, per ESPN.
But perhaps the biggest penalty was the ejection of driver Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase. He will be replaced in the 12-driver playoff field by Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman.
In addition, MWR crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer), Scott Miller (Vickers) and Chad Johnston (Truex) were placed on probation for the rest of the year. NASCAR president Mike Helton released a statement (via ESPN), stating, "We penalize to not have this happen again. It's a message from the league saying, 'You can't do this.'"
After numerous driver complaints through the media, fan gripes on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, as well as public questioning and criticism by several media outlets that cited radio communications within the MWR team that appeared to indicate subterfuge, NASCAR officials were forced to reconsider their initial stance after Saturday's race that nothing was amiss.
Did NASCAR get it right with the penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing and replacing Martin Truex Jr. with Ryan Newman in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Fan threats of never attending another race or giving up the sport for good unless the sanctioning body acted were apparently enough to cause NASCAR officials to take needed action.
In assessing the penalties, NASCAR said MWR—particularly Norris and Vickers—intentionally manipulated the outcome of the race to assure Truex made the Chase. That race set the field for the upcoming 10-race Chase, which starts Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
When it acquired team audio communications, NASCAR essentially let the facts—or in this case, MWR's own words—speak for themselves and cast the blame where it belonged. Most damning was Norris' comments over the radio to have Vickers pit on the final lap, giving an extra point to Truex that allowed him to make the Chase as a wild card.
"Ty Norris confirmed the conversation most everyone has heard with the 55 driver," Helton said.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said in a press release announcing the penalties, "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 and this action today reflects our commitment to that."
NASCAR could not overlook a potential scandal of this magnitude, arguably the most significant in the 10-year history of the Chase, as well as one of the ugliest incidents in the sanctioning body's 65-year history. It was essentially put in a situation where it was forced to take action. Newman supported NASCAR's decision in his statement:
I am proud that NASCAR took a stand with respect to what went on Saturday night at Richmond. I know it was a tough decision to make. With that being said, myself, [crew chief] Matt Borland and this entire No. 39 team are looking forward to competing for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Newman was leading Saturday's race with seven laps to go when Bowyer spun his race car, bringing out the caution. While it initially appeared as if Bowyer suffered a flat tire that caused the spin, the tire apparently did not shred until after he spun.
Newman, who earlier this year won the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, pitted under caution, but a slow pit stop caused him to come back on the race track in fifth place. He finished third in the race and barely missed qualifying for the Chase. He would have made the playoffs if he had won the event.
NASCAR reviewed video of the incident, as well as radio communications between members of the MWR team that gave the impression that verbal code words led to the spin, as well as additional code-like verbiage that Bowyer and Vickers both took intentional dives on the race's last three laps following the final restart so that Joey Logano would make the Chase, knocking out Jeff Gordon and securing Truex's spot in the playoffs as a wild-card entry.
Bowyer has repeatedly denied the spin was intentional. Helton said there was not enough evidence to prove Bowyer's spin was intentional, but losing 50 points in the pre-Chase standings indicates that there was enough of a question to assess that penalty.
Team owner Michael Waltrip released a statement Monday night accepting the penalties:
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. 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. As general manager, Ty Norris has been an integral part of Michael Waltrip Racing since its founding and has my and (co-owner) Rob Kauffman’s full support.
For Newman, being placed into the Chase was vindication:
What happened to me Saturday night is the toughest thing that I've ever gone through in any kind of racing in my 30 years of driving because of the way everything went down. I knew this announcement was coming, but in the end, I don't think it's anything to compare or contrast or say that the positive outweighs the negative or even compensates for it.
Interestingly, NASCAR placed Newman into the Chase on the same day it was announced he will join Richard Childress Racing next season, per NASCAR.com, after being told nearly two months ago that Stewart-Haas Racing would not retain him after this season.
This isn't the first time MWR has run afoul of the sanctioning body. It was heavily penalized prior to the first race of the 2007 season when a substance akin to jet fuel was found in one of the team's cars. Then-crew chief David Hyder and former director of competition Bobby Kennedy were both suspended indefinitely. Hyder was fined $100,000, driver/team owner Michael Waltrip was fined 100 points, and former wife Buffy, also listed as team owner, was docked an additional 100 points.
After 65 years of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, under-the-table tolerance of bending the rules, pushing the envelope and working in the so-called gray area, NASCAR made it very clear with Monday's severe penalization of Michael Waltrip Racing that cheating must come to an end.
The world of NASCAR has long embraced the culture that it isn't cheating if you don't get caught.
Monday, that culture changed—at least for now—because MWR did get caught cheating and paid a big price for it.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski