NASCAR's Mike Helton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
(Updating the Update)
By Mike Mulhern
Gordon was leading late at Richmond, the final race of the 26-race regular season, when Menard spun, apparently because of a flat tire. That brought out the caution, teams pitted, Harvick won the race off pit road and went on to win the 400.
Gordon, citing what he called 'suspicious' radio chatter involving Menard and the Richard Childress operation just before the yellow, said he felt that caution might have been deliberately caused. It is not merely an academic situation, since all regular season victories give title chase drivers bonus points toward the Sprint Cup championship. Obviously Harvick, not Gordon, got those points.
Gordon's complaints have caused quite a stir in the Childress haulers, and it's looking like two of this sport's most powerful operations -- Childress' and Rick Hendrick's -- may be going to war.
Jeff Gordon: Something 'fishy' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Helton's take here Friday morning:
"During the course of the race, and us officiating, we saw no evidence of anything out of the ordinary that we would have to react to.
"In light of the suspicions, we'll look into it, and see if there is anything. A lot of it is interpretation. But it is certainly upon us to understand exactly what we can find, the facts."
Helton played around what might be done now if he and his officials were to find something had in fact been amiss at Richmond.
"I would remind everyone that something like that is a 'race procedure.' It doesn't mean that we would necessarily find something after the race and react to it. But it would probably play a role going forward…."
One issue that Gordon pointed to, in his suspicions, was an apparent radio reference at Richmond prior to the caution between Menard and his team about 'going to channel 2,' as if that were some secret channel that no one, including NASCAR, could hear.
NASCAR generally insists that all radio talk between the driver and anyone else on his team be readily available on a public 'analog' channel that cannot be scrambled.
"The rulebook calls for analog channels to be used for all communications between the crew chief, driver and spotter," Helton said.
"Now there are a lot of radios out there that do a lot of other things….And teams can talk among themselves on digital channels, about strategy or whatever, but the communication between the crew chief and spotter and driver has to be on analog."
Helton says his men will be searching their tapes for all relevant
"I have not heard that yet," Helton said. "If it's out there, it's out there…"
Kevin Harvick says Jeff Gordon is entitled to voice his opinions...but then Harvick's got the trophy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gordon Saturday night, moments after the race, raised his suspicions in post-race comments with the media. But Helton said he himself had not yet heard anything directly from Gordon.
Gordon raised the public profile of the debate by taking it to the Chicago media in a major Thursday championship interview session with all 12 playoff drivers downtown.
Helton, though, did not complain himself about Gordon using such a public forum to raise the heat of the debate.
Harvick himself said he had no problem with Gordon voicing his opinions. And he appeared to downplay the controversy. "I'm going to stay as focused as I can," Harvick said. "Jeff Gordon has been here before (racing for a championship), and he knows how to stir things up. You have to pick and chose your battles, and you've got to be smart."
Menard himself and the rest of the Richard Childress men have been told by Childress not to talk about the Richmond any more. But those guys appear to be hot about Gordon's complaints.
Helton said "The only thing I ask everybody to cautiously go through that it's time to determine our champion…and we've seen in the past accusations and suspicions spool up. And it's on all of our shoulders to get all the facts right. And if there is something there, we need to find out about it and get it right.
"But this is a sport and these are athletes, and they know how to work the situation."
Helton said he would be looking at both video and audio related to the Richmond issue.
"If we can find it, we've got resources….." Helton said.
"The drivers have the right to do what they want to do publicly, as long as within reason, and if he thought that were an issue – an obviously he did – that's his right to address it."
NASCAR's playoff dozen. Any dirty tricks in these championship playbooks? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Having a driver deliberately bring out a caution to help another driver is, of course, not unusual in racing.
In fact Dale Earnhardt Jr., at Bristol a few years back, deliberately spun out to save himself from going a lap down...and then got in trouble for boasting about that on the radio: "I’ve
tried to help myself out by bringing out a caution...I got in trouble though. If you
do anything like that, you just can't admit it."
"We joke about there not being a 'gentleman's agreement' among drivers anymore in our sport…but I do believe there is a code of ethics among drivers, that is alive and well and very strong," Helton said.
"So I'm not necessarily overwhelmed by the chatter so far.
"Certainly we need to get our facts right and find what, if anything, went on….and then be prepared to officiate it.
"But I still think the code of ethics among drivers is very strong."
Might Gordon's public gripe be something of a 'preemptive' strike against a title rival organization, in light of complaints over the years that his own teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be perceived as getting 'good' calls from NASCAR when he's about to go a lap down?
Helton, on any preferential treatment for Earnhardt? He smiled and replied "And how's that worked out for him so far….."
Does NASCAR have any specific policies about 'team orders?' Helton says nothing specific "but there is a broad authority for the league to react to things that are 'detrimental.'"
But even if Helton were to find something did go on at Richmond, he pointed out that "it's a race procedure. And race procedures are unappealable and unchangeable.
"Which is why we need to get the facts right and understand the environment, so we can correctly police going forward."
So what's done is done and nothing can be done after the fact.
"I'm not saying we can't," Helton replied. "We can.
"But a guy causing a caution is a race procedure, like balls and strike.
"So far it's all (just) based on interpretation of what we've heard."
I would want to wait and hear the audio, and not rely on the interpretations we've heard. And if the interpretation is very blatant, then that would become a factor. But right now I want to wait for all the facts."
And why hasn't NASCAR gone over all the pertinent Richmond audio?
"There is a lot of audio…and there is no guarantee that Saturday night during the race that we would be hearing every bit of audio from every driver," Helton said.
Childress issued a brief statement: "There were no team orders despite all the speculation in the media. I know Paul Menard well enough that he wouldn't have spun out on purpose even if he had been asked. We are at Chicagoland Speedway to win the race and get a great start toward the championship."
Menard himself had crashed midway through the Richmond race and spent considerable time in the garage for repairs; he was some 80 laps down at the end, and he finished 34th…nine laps behind the car that finished 33rd, 23 laps ahead of the car that finished 35th.
What Gordon might see as suspicious is the radio talk between Menard and his crew keeping Menard informed of the battle for the lead between Harvick and Gordon – a battle that would seem to have little to do with Menard himself.
Some of the immediately available audio from those key moments in that race, between Menard and his crew, went like this:
"Check your volt gauge, Paul. Check your volt gauge."
That exchange, some here contend, might sound suspicious, since there would be little need to check the alternator output with only 20 or 30 laps left in the race. Was that perhaps some code, it has been suggested.
As the audio continues, with more references to the battle between Harvick and Gordon, Menard apparently asks spotter for some explanation:
"Stevie, talk to me."
Then the spotter apparently tells crew chief Slugger Labbe this, in response: "Slugger, can you go to channel two?"
What channel two is is unclear. And it is unclear if that radio communication is available for NASCAR review.
"Think I have a right rear going down."
"10-4. I'll look at it," the spotter apparently responds. "Just save it till we find out. We need to finish. Back off till you're sure."
Moments later Menard spins off turn four and skids into the frontstretch grass, bringing out the last caution, with 15 laps to go, while Gordon is leading.
Gordon Friday: "I just thought it was interesting them giving the gaps between me and Kevin, and then going to channel two.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's something NASCAR can deal with. Obviously they've looked into it enough and they feel they need to take a second look.
"By bringing attention to it, it will make people think twice about it.
"I (would) like to talk to Paul...and I like Paul. I was so thrilled for him to win the Brickyard....
"Again, I'm not saying anything happened; I'm just saying I was asked questions about what happened, and when I heard the radio communication, it sounded odd to me. Obviously it did to others as well, because they are looking into it."
Actually Gordon himself was the first one to raise a question about Menard's spin, post-race Saturday night: " I didn't want to see a caution. I thought it was interesting when I saw a Childress car sitting down this in the grass."
Harvick was diplomatic about it all:
"You can have opinions on a lot of things…Does Jeff Gordon catch me if the 51 (driver Landon Cassill, in a car owned by James Finch) -- which is a Hendrick car and has a lot of Hendrick support -- does he ever catch me if he doesn't sit there and block and ride and spin out twice during the race?
"There's a lot of things we could debate, and Jeff's just debating the things he's been told. Jeff's asking questions…
"There's debates all through the race, and all through the field; and it's just that time of year….
"He's voicing his opinion, and I have no problem with that. There's nothing that needs to be riled up or create a controversy. There's nothing there.
"It's something where people have opinions…and that is not anything against Jeff Gordon. He's just asking questions, and that's what he should do."
Then Harvick added "I know Jeff is very good, and he's been here before -- racing for championships -- and he wants to stir as much stuff up as he can."
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Clint Bowyer's future remains cloudy.
Richard Childress has all but confirmed he and Bowyer won't be renewing for 2012, and the Richard Petty Motorsports arm of Ford doesn't appear that interested any more in Bowyer.
But Bowyer and Michael Waltrip say they're now talking about teaming next season.
"I can confirm we have had very productive conversations with Clint and a quality sponsor," Waltrip said. "Today, however, we don't have anything finalized, and we're not in a position to make any formal announcements.
"Our goal has never changed. Rob (Kauffman) and I want to continue to improve the competitiveness of our team and be a consistent winner at NASCAR's highest level. Pursuing chase-proven personnel, including drivers, has been a priority.
"As soon as we have more information to share, we will."
Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, Team Red Bull's two drivers led the final round of practice Friday evening for Sunday's Chicago 400, and that could be an indication of what to expect in Saturday afternoon's 1:40 p.m. ET pole runs. Kahne has a ride for 2012, with Rick Hendrick, but Vickers is still looking. And the entire Team Red Bull operation, several hundred people, is still up in the air, three months after the sponsor announced it would be leaving NASCAR at the end of the year.
Matt Kenseth was the fastest playoff driver, and Kyle Busch the slowest. Weather questions had most teams working on race setups.
Fox TV's David Hill, on NASCAR, to a Los Angeles magazine:
On what he considers when he and Fox Sports bid for a sport (with an eye toward the upcoming renegotiations with NASCAR, for example):
"What do we think it's worth? Where do we think we can grow it? And where's it going to be in 10 or 12 years?"
Perhaps that's a good starting point for NASCAR executives too.
Hill, again, on NASCAR's TV ratings:
"There was a serious problem about three or four years ago with the 'car of tomorrow,' which everyone was talking about. They were talking about Safer barriers. They were talking about HANS devices. They were talking about cars, and should it have a wing and what have you.
"People don't follow auto racing to hear about widgets.
"The role of the driver as driver-hero is why people follow the sport.
"No one goes out to buy a tee-shirt with a photo of the crew chief on the front.
"And the focus -- all of us are guilty -- NASCAR and the broadcasters moved the focus away from the driver as hero and moved it to an inanimate object.
"The car. And the tires. And dingleflappers and copper ashtrays and the ignition key…
"What we did this year we made a conscious effort to totally back down about the car. We didn't talk about the car; we talked about the driver: What it takes -- the courage, the reflexes…
"And guess what: the ratings started to come back."
North Wilkesboro Speedway Update: http://bit.ly/pODR38
The New York Times' interest in NASCAR, like that of most U.S. newspapers, is seriously on the wane.
Still, what to make of this NYT's NASCAR story? http://nyti.ms/o0xibj
And whatever happened to that 3D-NASCAR TV project?
NASCAR In Chicago?
Here's one local NASCAR fan, on Sunday's Chicago 400:
"NASCAR fan since 1970…live in Chicago…no plans to go. Really wish it had been a five/eighths-mile short-track or road course instead of a boring trioval."
And if you're still waiting for NASCAR's 2012 national touring schedules, well, it looks like the Sprint Cup calender is ready for printing but there are holdups with the Truck and Nationwide calenders.
Rockingham Speedway (N.C.) could get a Nationwide date. And the Montreal Nationwide date is still under negotiations.
What other holdups are unclear.
An unofficial 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup tour schedule
(tentative, as of September 16, 2011)
Feb 16 Daytona Media Day, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 18 Bud Shootout, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL Sat. Night
Feb 19 Daytona 500 qualifying, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 23 Gatorade Duels, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 26 Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Mar 4 Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale AZ
Mar 11 Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas NV
Mar 18 Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol TN
Mar 25 California Auto Club Speedway, Fontana CA
Apr 1 Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville VA
Apr 8 Off-Weekend - Easter
Apr 14 Texas Motor Speedway, Ft. Worth TX Sat. Night
Apr 22 Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, KN
Apr 28 Richmond International Raceway, Richmond VA Sat. Night
May 6 Talladega SuperSpeedway, Talladega AL
May 12 Darlington Raceway, Darlington SC (Mother's Day weekend) Sat. Night
May 19 NASCAR All-Star Challenge, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sat. Night
May 27 Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sun.Night
June 3 Dover International Speedway, Dover DE
June 10 Pocono Raceway, Pocono, PA (confirmed)
June 17 Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn MI
June 24 Infineon Raceway, Sonoma CA
June 30 Kentucky Speedway, Sparta KY Sat. Night
July 7 Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL Sat. Night
July 15 New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon NH
July 22 Off-weekend
July 29 Brickyard 400, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indianapolis IN
Aug. 5 Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, PA
Aug. 12 Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen NY
Aug. 19 Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn MI
Aug. 25 Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol TN Sat. Night
Sept. 2 Atlanta Motor Speedway, Atlanta
Sept. 8 Richmond Int'l Raceway, Richmond VA Sat. Night
Sept. 16 Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet IL
Sept. 23 New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon NH
Sept. 30 Dover International Speedway, Dover DE
Oct. 7 Talladega SuperSpeedway, Talladega AL
Oct. 13 Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sat. Night
Oct. 21 Kansas Speedway, Kansas City KN
Oct. 28 Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville VA
Nov. 4 Texas Motor Speedway, Ft. Worth TX
Nov. 11 Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale AZ
Nov. 18 Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead FL
Jeff Gordon: he's got his fans out here in Chicago. Does he have a real question about the Richmond race....or just playing head games? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)