Miss Sprint: floating high above Chicago, where the NASCAR playoffs are about to begin....under a big, dark cloud.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
A bogus NASCAR championship race?
An illegitimate champion looming?
NASCAR's half-hearted, and quite late, reaction to Saturday night's Richmond controversies, has left open the clear possibility that more nefarious moves may be coming in the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Consider this scenario:
Revive Tony Stewart's 2011 championship charge at Homestead, when Carl Edwards chased Stewart, with the title on the line to whichever man would win that race. The last 37 laps were green. Edwards couldn't catch Stewart. But suppose someone had spun out during those last 37 laps, bringing out a caution...changing the dynamic and opening the door for Edwards to win.
Considering how NASCAR has left the Richmond situation dangling, it certainly appears to keep the door wide open for team orders, or other unfair moves on the track, to alter this championship.
Surely now, every questionable caution during the 10-race chase may be hotly debated and analyzed for hidden agendas.
That's a cloud this sport will have to play under until NASCAR makes some significant changes.
What NASCAR might do, or could do, is still up in the air.
However without doing more, NASCAR executives are leaving the door open to more such controversies.
Ryan's in the chase, now. But what about Jeff Gordon? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That NASCAR-Richmond championship chase controversy apparently is still under consideration by Daytona executives, five days after the controversial series of incidents in the regular season finale, and three days after a NASCAR press conference and series of heavy penalties.
Early Thursday morning NASCAR issued another curt statement:
"NASCAR is continuing to gather all the facts from last Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Richmond International Raceway. NASCAR will have no further comment until all the facts have been examined."
But it's unclear if NASCAR officials are actually considering more moves or penalties in the controversy or simply trying to avoid questions from Chicago media over the situation.
NASCAR has its playoff chase drivers fanning out across the country this week to promote the championship.
And NASCAR's promotion men and women have their work cut out for them, and there will assuredly be even more heavy marketing to try to overshadow the Richmond controversies.
There are certainly a number of loose ends still on the table:
-- Jeff Gordon, for one.
His team owner Rick Hendrick says Gordon was robbed at Richmond. NASCAR so far has ignored complaints about Gordon failing to make the chase; Gordon was set to make the playoffs until Clint Bowyer's spin with just seven laps to go in Saturday night's race.
-- Clint Bowyer himself, for another. NASCAR's penalties Tuesday did virtually nothing to penalize Bowyer, whose late race spin was apparently done at the behest of his crew chief, to keep Ryan Newman from winning the race, and to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. get enough points to make the playoffs, costing Gordon a playoff spot.
Bowyer insists he did not spin on purpose.
However all the radio chatter in those final moments of the Richmond race would seem to say otherwise.
Bowyer is not an also-ran in the series either. He is one of the sport's top drivers, he finished second in the standings last fall to champion Brad Keselowski, and he has been second in the standings since July-Daytona. He could easily win this championship. He starts the playoffs with no penalty for whatever happened at Richmond.
Matt Kenseth, in Chicago: Can he beat Jimmie Johnson and win this championship? Wonder if that would persuade Home Depot to get back in the NASCAR game...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However two of Michael Waltrip's major sponsors, NAPA and 5Hour Energy, say they are reassessing their NASCAR relationships.
-- "Dear Facebook Fans and the NAPA community,
"The actions taken by Michael Waltrip’s Racing team this past weekend leading to the penalties assessed by NASCAR, are very concerning. We are disappointed that a partner associated with our organization would make such a significant error in judgment. In addition, we have launched our own review to determine the future of our partnership with Michael Waltrip’s Racing team. The NAPA AUTO PARTS organization is proud of its long-standing NASCAR relationship. We share a passion with our customers for high quality racing and seek to determine the best course of action for our customers, NASCAR fans, and the NAPA organization."
-- "Living Essentials, the makers of 5-hour ENERGY® shots, understands the disappointment NASCAR fans feel in regards to the actions taken by Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond. Living Essentials does not condone practices that violate NASCAR rules or the spirit of fair play. Living Essentials respects NASCAR's penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing, and is addressing its sponsorship relations internally. We appreciate your understanding and patience in this matter."
Meanwhile, maybe all the bad news from Richmond will be good news in Chicago, where the stock car racing playoffs are to begin in Sunday's Chicago 400.
The TV numbers from the Richmond 400 were somewhat positive, up slightly from the finale a year ago.
"ABC's live telecast of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, Sept. 7, saw an increase in viewership from last year's race," the network announced. "The telecast was viewed by an average of 5,153,453 people with a U.S. household rating of 3.3, according to the Nielsen Company. Last year’s race, which also earned a 3.3 rating, had an average viewership of 5,078,987."
The top-10 markets for the Richmond race: Richmond itself, Greenville SC, Norfolk VA, Knoxville TN, Winston-Salem/Greensboro NC, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Dayton OH, Nashville TN, and Columbus OH.
However the Friday night Richmond-Nationwide race was down slightly from last year, averaging 1.833 million viewers, to 2012's 1.857 million.
Blue skies? Storm clouds hanging over NASCAR as the playoffs begin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)