Will Michael Waltrip Racing Penalties Change NASCAR's Culture of Cheating?

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2013

This Clint Bowyer spin with seven laps to go at Richmond ignited a storm of controversy.
This Clint Bowyer spin with seven laps to go at Richmond ignited a storm of controversy.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Now that NASCAR has lowered the boom on Michael Waltrip Racing and taken the unprecedented step of altering the results of last Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (per Tom Jensen and FoxSports.com), Ryan Newman is in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and Martin Truex Jr. is out.

It was a stunning move—no one thought NASCAR would mess with a Chase field that was seemingly already set.

Ty Norris, MWR's general manager and the team's spotter at the Richmond race, has been suspended indefinitely and the organization is out a whole lot of money as well—a record $300,000 fine.

But have these developments really changed anything with the cheating culture NASCAR not only has tolerated but, arguably, encouraged throughout much of its rich and colorful history?

Well, let's put it this way: It's not likely that anyone will spin out on purpose—at least, not so obviously—to help out a teammate at such a critical time of such an important race. And the next GM who supposedly orders one of his cars to mysteriously pit isn't likely to leave a trail right back to his door. 

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Those were the issues at hand that led to NASCAR's decision to dock all three MWR cars 50 points. It was determined that the team had ordered driver Clint Bowyer to spin out to bring out a caution with seven laps remaining, while Norris allegedly ordered Brian Vickers to unnecessarily pit—all to aid the Chase qualification efforts of teammate Truex.

Explained NASCAR president Mike Helton:

Cars spin out. We have cautions. There's a lot of things that happen on the racetrack that people speculate about why it happened or how it happened. Sometimes there's conclusive evidence. More often than not, though, you don't know exactly what happened. But the collection of all the information we collected from Saturday night led us to the team wide reaction as opposed to an individual car.

It's difficult. It's not an easy decision to make. Conversations about it were deep. We feel like we researched it extremely well, talked at great length with the folks from Michael Waltrip Racing to try to get to the right spot and make the correct decision, and that's what we feel like we have done.

Bowyer's spin cost Newman the race victory he seemingly had in hand (Newman still won't get credit for it, as NASCAR is rightly letting Carl Edwards' win stand). The No. 39 car was forced to pit road after the subsequent caution. When he came out with only three green laps left to run, he was in fifth with too little time left to make up the difference.

In that instant, Ryan Newman's Chase hopes seemingly were cooked.

As if losing out on the win wasn't bad enough, Newman needed the outright victory to qualify as one of the two wild cards for the Chase. When he didn't, the wild-card spot he would have claimed went instead to the seemingly unsuspecting Martin Truex—who also had benefited from the race positions Vickers gave up when he came to pit road for his earlier unnecessary stop.

In the past, NASCAR has avoided post-race results tinkering. Especially two days after the fact—opting, instead, for some combination of fines, points penalties and suspensions. This time, NASCAR officials belatedly did the right thing by substituting Newman for Truex in the Chase...except they didn't go quite far enough.

Driver Jeff Gordon is still left on the outside looking in, when he would have almost certainly bumped Joey Logano from the Chase field if not for No. 15's actions. Gordon took note of this when the news of the penalties broke Monday night.

Gordon is right. While all three MWR cars had their efforts from the Richmond race zeroed out, it cost Truex dearly because it dropped him from 11th to 17th in points and left him out of the Chase after he thought he was in. Clint Bowyer, who entered Saturday's race already assured of a Chase berth, has his position and seed unaffected. In other words, the guy at the center of all the controversy has basically gotten away scot-free.

Why not dock Bowyer at least three points for the start of the Chase, when all have their regular-season points reset? (Race winners in the top 10 in points earn three bonus points for each race won over the first 26 races; the two wild-card entries—in this case, Kasey Kahne and, now, Newman—do not.)

Bowyer now starts the Chase even with Kahne, Newman and the rest of the Chasers who failed to win a race in the regular season. That hardly seems fair.

In other words, although their intentions were good and they deserve some credit for at least taking a stab at it, NASCAR didn't go quite far enough and continued to prove itself professional sports' master at sending mixed messages.

Will it change the culture of cheating that dates back to the days when Hall of Famer Junior Johnson slyly proclaimed, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'"? That's doubtful.

It will have an immediate impact, for sure. But in the long run, it's only going to be a matter of time until someone else tries something crazy—and blatantly illegal—once again. Then the only question will be, again, what is NASCAR going to do about it?