Jeff Gordon: a shot at that elusive fifth NASCAR championship....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Will Brian France's actions so far this week, heading into the championship playoffs, bolster NASCAR's flagging integrity -- in the wake of all those questionable moves in last weekend's Richmond 400?
Jeff Gordon, who was just added to the chase field as the 13th title contender because of those Richmond questions, says more still needs to be done.
And he says he's worried that, barring some major changes, the sport could face similar questions through the 10-race playoffs.
"There is more concern to me that we get to Homestead (in late November for the championship finale) and have this come up again," Gordon frets. "So it needs to be addressed.
"Usually what happens in a situation that gets to this magnitude, there is going to be an overreaction, and you understand and accept that.
"It might need to be modified over time, but I think right now an overreaction is probably the acceptable reaction."
Part of the problem, of course, is what happened Saturday night at Richmond is not out of the ordinary. Variations of those now-questioned moves occur with regularity. One of the most comical situations occurred several years ago when Jeff Burton backed off while leading to let Mark Martin get back up front.
And teammates routinely let a teammate lead a lap to get bonus points.
So where's the line?
"It's been sort of a 'This is what happens,' especially in championships," Gordon concedes. "If you're not in it, you see what you can do to help your teammate.
"But you don't go cause a caution. You don't go wreck another guy to win the championship for them.
"There are certain lines. And I think the lines have been obviously crossed in this situation."
In the playoffs....then suddenly out: Martin Truex Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
If the same things had played out at Atlanta or Bristol a week or two earlier, there might not have been even a blink.
But with a playoff spot on the line so prominently as at Richmond, and with a playoff sport sometimes the key link in sponsorship or sponsorship renewal, well, it seems like anything goes.
"When it comes down to making it into the chase, and it seems like it's the final race where it really comes into play... and then the final race of the season for the championship, there is no doubt that for as many years as I've been part of the sport there are circumstances in which a teammate can try to help out," Gordon say. "If that is you'll race one guy maybe a little bit hard or move over for somebody else... I mean that's just kind of been standard practice in the sport.
"But it continues to get more and more competitive, there is more on the line: more prestige, more money...
"As long as things like that have been acceptable... there are times when things need to change.
"This has probably been coming for a couple years now -- and needed to change sooner."
Gordon says that may well change the way teammates have to play the game.
" I like the fact that some things are going to change, because all we all want to do is race our guts out every single lap," Gordon says. "None of us want to go out there and give up a spot, or race somebody different because our teammate is running for a championship.
"We want to be racing for every position, every lap, as hard as we can."
Clint Bowyer: apologetic, but unrepentant (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gordon says he's still not happy with how NASCAR has handled Clint Bowyer's apparent role in the Richmond mess.
"I do think that event is what started all this...what really magnified this to a whole other level," Gordon says.
"(But) I can't see what all they (NASCAR) are dealing with. I'm not in that room; I'm not hearing all of the different sides to it.
"So I give them the benefit of the doubt.
"But it seemed they did an overall penalty for Michael Waltrip Racing that sort of dealt with it, but not really.
"What's acceptable (as a penalty for Bowyer's spin)? I don't know. But something.
"A 50-point fine pre-Chase was no penalty. That is all I was upset about.
"I felt like it was pretty clear. I felt that's what started all this, and that didn't really get addressed."
Without the playoff format, of course, the Richmond race almost certainly would have gone down differently. The chase format is seen as creating situations like this.
Then again NASCAR officials were clearly negligent in not having a better monitoring system in place to listen to all the wheeling and dealing. If NASCAR had such a system, it might not have so curtly dismissed Saturday night questions about the situation.
"It doesn't all lie on NASCAR," Gordon says. "We all have a responsibility in this. "
Gordon raises just these issues again, in a different light:
"We are fierce competitors. I don't think a fierce competitor can ever be torn down by trying to do everything they possibly can to win a race, to be in a championship battle, to win the championship... and in some ways even to help out their teammates who helped them get to that point.
"That is what you've got to understand -- It's not just giving up something for a friend; you work as a team."
Yes, he points out that the multi-car teams themselves are a basic part of the problem.
"It pushes us sometimes to do things that even we question," Gordon says.
"Through all of this, the integrity of the sport has been put at question.
"We have one of the greatest sports. To see our integrity questioned is very upsetting.
"We, along with NASCAR, have to solve this. I'm glad that we are going to get this opportunity to do this.
"I wish it had not happened under these circumstances. I wish we could have come to this conclusion sooner....
"But we are going to be a better sport tomorrow because of this.
"You've got to take a negative and turn it into a positive, and I believe that's what's going to happen."
For Gordon himself the past seven days have been "rough."
"A lot of up-and-down emotions for this entire team.
"I'm very thankful to be in. I know it's under the most unbelievable circumstances I've ever been a part of in my racing career, and I wish that all of this hadn't happened. I wish that we could have just raced for it on Saturday night, but that wasn't the case.
"Now here we are as a 13th car. We'll take that opportunity and make the most of it."
And this four-time champ, though he's never won a championship chase, could very well win this thing of course.
Gordon says he feels for Martin Truex Jr., who was bounced from the playoffs after struggling to make it in.
"What I felt bad about with Martin was the circumstances which he got in under, then for that to be taken away," Gordon said.
"He drove his butt off. I raced with him in the closing laps and he raced hard. You could tell what he was racing for.
"The guy didn't do anything wrong.
"I felt bad for him.
"But we didn't get to see the race play out. We don't know what the results were going to be, because that spin changed everything.
"That is the only reason I'm accepting being in...because under normal circumstances I would say 'No, that's not right.'
"But under these circumstances there is enough reason for us to be in. I know how hard we worked, and that we earned the right to be in.
"This has lit a fire under us. We came here ready to go.
"In some funny way this has given us that same fire we had last year.
"And we have ten, or at least eight good tracks in the chase...starting right here in Chicago.
"New Hampshire is a great track for us.
"Martinsville is a great track for us.
"Obviously, Homestead is a great track (that's where Gordon's last tour victory came).
"We ran great in Charlotte.
"Texas is another good track for us.
" Kansas and Phoenix are the two that are probably on our radar we need to do better at.
"So I'm excited. I know we haven't shown it yet this year, but this team is ready to show it now."
Does Jimmie Johnson's slump end Sunday in Chicago? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)