NASCAR president Mike Helton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
NASCAR busted Michael Waltrip Racing hard Monday night, 48 hours after the controversial finish to the playoff-clinching finale at Richmond.
Waltrip's Martin Truex Jr. was kicked out of the championship, Ryan Newman was added to the 12-man playoff roster, for the 10-race chase which begins this weekend in Chicago. But Jeff Gordon, the other man hurt by Clint Bowyer's controversial late-race spin, got no relief from the stock car racing sanctioning body.
The only man suspended was Ty Norris, Waltrip's general manager.
NASCAR made it clear that it felt the Waltrip operation had attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race.
NASCAR Monday evening hurriedly called a press conference to address the situation raised late Saturday when Bowyer spunout under questionable circumstances and teammate Brian Vickers was ordered to make a last lap pit stop for questionable reasons. The Bowyer-Vickers situations resulted in Truex and Joey Logano making the playoffs, where with just seven laps to go in the last race of the regular season Gordon and Newman were set to make the playoffs, not Truex or Logano.
The press conference was apparently not carried by any of NASCAR's TV partners. And the press conference was called only about 30 minutes before it was set.
Newman was leading the Richmond race, which would have put him in the playoffs, until Bowyer spun out with seven laps to go. The video and the in-car audio both suggested Bowyer spun out on purpose, to keep Newman from winning.
However NASCAR officials insisted Monday night they could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Bowyer had spun out on purpose.
Still, the preponderence of audio was that Ty Norris, general manager of the Waltrip team, appeared to be orchestrating the finish to put Truex in the playoffs.
The official NASCAR press release:
"NASCAR has issued penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing following the sanctioning body’s review of Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
"MWR was found to have violated Section 12-4 (Actions detrimental to stock car racing). As a result, MWR’s three teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (No. 15, 55, 56) have been penalized with the loss of 50 championship driver and 50 championship owner points, respectively.
"These point penalties are assessed following the season’s 26th regular season race and not after the seeding for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Therefore, the point total for the No. 56 car driven by Martin Truex Jr. is reduced to 691, putting him in 17th position and eliminating him from the second Wild Card berth for the Chase field. Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 car, now moves up into the Chase as the second Wild Card participant.
"NASCAR has also fined the MWR organization $300,000 and indefinitely suspended Ty Norris, MWR Executive Vice President/General Manager and spotter for the No. 55 car, for violating Section 12-4. The three crew chiefs – Brian Pattie (No. 15), Scott Miller (No. 55) and Chad Johnston (No. 56) – have all been placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31.
"Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “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."
Tony Stewart issued a quick statement: "Obviously, we’re very pleased with NASCAR’s decision to provide Ryan Newman’s rightful place in this year’s Chase. NASCAR was put in a very difficult position Saturday night at Richmond and we commend the sanctioning body for taking the time to do the necessary due diligence to ensure that the right call was made."
Waltrip issued a statement: "What occurred on the No. 55 (Brian Vickers) 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.”
Gordon, in a short statement, said he didn't agree with NASCAR not specifically penalizing Bowyer.
Michael Waltrip (L), Martin Truex Jr. (C) and Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The controversy comes as NASCAR marketers and drivers are fanning out across the country to promote the championship playoffs.
NASCAR's Helton spent nearly 30 minutes Monday night discussing the incident and how NASCAR came to its conclusions.
"We've spent the last day and a half collecting all the information we could, and today we reviewed that," Helton said. Waltrip's people were asked to attend Monday's review and accepted.
"This naturally is a very significant reaction from NASCAR. As multiple car owners have become a very integral part of our sport, so has become the responsibility to maintain a fair and level playing field. We've been very fortunate that we have not had to step up as we have today.
"It is difficult; it is not an easy decision to make. We have talked at great length with people from Michael Waltrip Racing to come to the right spot and make the correct decision."
The initial sense was that Bowyer himself was not signficantly penalized.
Helton said the sanctioning body was targeting the Waltrip organization, rather than any specific driver or team.
"We penalize as a message for it not to happen again, not to take it out on somebody. It's a message from the league to say 'You can't do this.' That's what we're doing."
Immediately after Saturday's race NASCAR's John Darby didn't seem worried about any intentional moves by Bowyer.
When did NASCAR's thinking change?
"The unfolding of the race had nothing in it that we needed to react to.
"After the conclusion of the race, it was some time before components began to come together. It was far into the night, early in the morning, before we began to sense components of what might have happened surfaced.
"We spent the biggest part of today reviewing all that."
"We react to what occured....not to the ripple effect," Helton said.
If NASCAR had been monitoring live-time the radio communication between crews and teams, perhaps a red flag might have been raised.
Helton said that technology doesn't really exist at the moment.
Of course NASCAR could simple ban such radio communications..
Helton said "There is not conclusive evidence that (Bowyer) spun intentionally."
He said the Bowyer-Brian Pattie conversation just before the spin "was the most clear piece of evidence...."
And an appeal? Helton said there is an appeals process, but it is up to Michael Waltrip to make that call.
Helton pointed out there were no suspensions involved here except for Ty Norris.
"Ty confirmed the conversation (with Vickers)," Helton said.
Does this all create a credibility issue?
"It is a sport, it is supposed to be fun...but we realize there will be days like this when things didn't go right," Helton said. "It was a tough conversation with Michael Waltrip Racing..and it was a tough conversation internally (at NASCAR). We all wanted to make sure we did the right things.
"But we'll get through this.
"As far as the credibility of the sport, NASCAR has always taken very seriously its responsibilty to maintain, for the most part, its credibility. We get that that is subjective.
"But remember this is a sport. Sometimes it gets out of bounds, and we have to bring it back."
The $300,000 fine? "We debated for a while..and the uniqueness of this penalty," Helton said.
"This is the most major fine in our history, in dollar amount. And it is the first time NASCAR has responded to a team, to every car in a team.
"We looked at it as a whole package.
"Today is a unique step for us. But we do have a track record of dealing with a trend until we stop that trend."
The Jeff Gordon situation, however, lingers.
"If you try to look at the ripple effect of an incident, you can't always come with a reaction..
"So we try to react to an incident. Our focus is the incident, not the ripple effect of the incident, or the ramifications of our reaction."
NASCAR executives clearly wanted to get this controversy -- these controversies -- behind them.
However it was clear that Bowyer himself did not get any specific penalties.