The men in the championship playoffs. But did Clint Bowyer's mysterious spin at Richmond alter the legitimacy of this chase? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Just a week after Jeff Burton announced he would be leaving Richard Childress at the end of the season, for parts unknown, Childress Monday afternoon announced Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman to take Burton's place.
Luke Lambert will remain as crew chief for the Cat-sponsored team.
That still leaves Childress with the Kevin Harvick-Gil Martin ride to settle.
Newman was cut loose by Tony Stewart in mid-July, effective the end of the year. And two weeks later Newman rebounded to win at Indianapolis.
With Childress having missed out on picking Kurt Busch for the Harvick ride, the veteran team owner was suddenly scrambling to fill two seats.
And why it took nearly two months to sign Newman, really the only logical choice out there, other than Juan Pablo Montoya, is unclear.
Montoya, meanwhile, is now expected to sign to drive for Barney Visser and crew chief Todd Berrier next season.
However the game of musical chairs wasn't really the hot topic Monday afternoon for Newman.
NASCAR officials, after initially dismissing Saturday night's controversial Clint Bowyer spin with just seven laps to go in the Richmond 400, now say they are reviewing the situation.
Bowyer's spin and a few other curious and questioned moves by the Michael Waltrip men in the final moments of the last race of the regular season effectively took Jeff Gordon and Newman out of the championship playoffs and let their own teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the playoffs. HERE is Nate Ryan's excellent breakdown of the incident.
The spin: Did Clint Bowyer do it on purpose, to get a teammate in the playoffs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Newman is not happy with how any of this has played out so far.
"It's tough to comment on it because it's being reviewed," Newman says. "I don't know how anybody is going to react -- or put their foot down, or penalize, or do anything. I'm waiting to see what comes of it.
"But my opinion inside a race car, and watching and listening and understanding the communication that there was, then it was not entirely an accident.
...and maybe somebody could look up for me how many times this year Clint Bowyer spun out all by himself.
"What happened to me Saturday night is the toughest thing I've ever gone through in any kind of racing in my 30 years of driving, because of the way everything went down. In hindsight, how it hurt that much more."
Ryan Newman: devastated (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
What NASCAR officials might be able to do is not well understood.
"NASCAR does their due diligence of how they proceed with what happened, and that could go several different directions," Newman says.
"I was extremely disappointed to see and hear some of the things that went down."
No matter what NASCAR does next, Newman says he probably wouldn't have nice things to say to Bowyer and the Waltrip men.
"The potential is not good for us to be cordial to each other," Newman said.
"We'll see how it all works out, but it's not an easy thing to work through mentally, emotionally, and even physically afterwards."
Newman says NASCAR will almost certainly have to change some procedures to ensure controversial incidents like this don't happen again.
"Our sport is unique," Newman says. "We don't have instant replay. We can't hit the pause button. We can't blow the whistle.
"There might have been a different perspective had anybody from NASCAR...inspectors on pit road (better monitored) the communication with respect to their car that they're handling on pit road.
"That communication very easily could have been communicated (to higher officials), and may have caused a different reaction immediately, versus talking about it two days later.
"It's a tough situation in our sport, because we can't just kick them in neutral and think about it, or figure out what we need to do, or take a couple of extra pace laps and figure out how it should work.
"The task at hand for NASCAR is how to handle this as well as these situations in the future.
"If it (the curious communications between the Waltrip teams and the drivers) was monitored, in my opinion it would have made a difference in the way it got handled immediately on Saturday night. That is probably my point, more so than the fact of what and where are we next year?"
Making the playoffs is more than just a sidelight to the whole season; it can be crucial for sponsorships, for one.
"I pretty much had to stress myself to sleep Saturday night," Newman said. "I had my phone in my hands and was communicating with people about different things.
"Some of the homework was done by you guys as far as the media goes, and some of it was done internally at Stewart-Haas tying everything together -- the communications between some of the Michael Waltrip cars and what reactions they created on the track and how it affected the points.
"It became more disappointing the more we dug into it.
"It didn't just affect me, it affected Jeff Gordon and Logano and Truex.
"And we knew there was potential for this going into this race. I would have hoped we would have been able to monitor this situation.
"This is something that is brought up in every Richmond drivers' meeting.
"We saw there was potential for fire...but nobody grabbed the extinguisher."
But how might NASCAR right the current situation? By adding Newman and Gordon to the playoffs?
"I don't even want to comment on that," Newman said.
"I just know that we were deserving of it at one point without a doubt Saturday night; and we put ourselves in that position.
"There was nothing up to that point that would have changed that, until Clint spun out. And that changed everything."
Of course Newman's pit crew, on the pit stops after that spin, could have altered the finish with a faster stop, Newman concedes.
"I was disappointed that we still had the opportunity to control our destiny -- coming off pit road, even if we came off second behind (Paul) Menard, we still should have been able to come off first car on four tires and win the race, just as Carl did. And we didn't do that."
Nevertheless Newman said he feels Bowyer and Waltrip men 'manipulated' the end game.
And now Newman says "How NASCAR handles this is extremely important for all of us.
"I mean, we spent 26 races to get to that point, and we missed it by a tie....but we also missed it by what happened.
"It's just so touchy. I'll leave it at that."
Clint Bowyer suddenly on the hot seat for that mysterious late race spin Saturday night, that cost Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman spots in the playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)