RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR will have a new champion. For now, it has yet another conspiracy.
Reigning champion Brad Keselowski failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Saturday night when an ill-timed caution ruined his run at Richmond International Raceway. Same thing happened to Ryan Newman, who used a pass on eventual winner Carl Edwards with 10 laps to go to take the lead for what should have been enough to get in the Chase.
Then Clint Bowyer spun three laps later to bring out a caution that ruined Newman’s race. The benefactor? Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, who struggled the entire race.
Newman and Truex were locked into a race for the second of two wild cards in the 12-driver Chase field, and the race win would give it to Newman. Only he lost the lead on pit road, wound up finishing third, and Truex grabbed the final spot in the Chase.
Conspiracy theorists immediately accused Bowyer of spinning on purpose to help his teammate, and a tweet from Bowyer friend Blake Shelton didn’t help his cause: ‘‘Y'all should follow @ClintBowyer!!! The definition of team player!!!’’ the country music star posted on Twitter.
A despondent Newman wasn’t sure if Bowyer’s spin was legitimate.
‘‘They are teammates. I don’t know if he looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading, it doesn’t matter,’’ Newman said. ‘‘If that was the case, I'll find out one way or the other. At the same time we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn't. That being said, we’re out.’’
Truex, who broke his right wrist two weeks ago in a crash at Bristol and has been racing with a cast, said he had no idea who caused the caution.
‘‘I didn’t even know it happened until after the race,’’ Truex said. ‘‘I raced my [butt] off all night long. That’s all I can do. I tell my crew chief what my car is doing, that I need to go faster. That was enough to worry about. I don’t have to worry about any other people out on the racetrack. I didn’t even know that [Bowyer] brought out the caution until after the race.’’
Bowyer, who led 72 laps earlier in the race, denied any wrongdoing and said he simply lost the handling on his car. He said it was no different than Jimmie Johnson, who hit the wall earlier in the race to bring out the caution that jumbled the field and ultimately ruined Keselowski’s Chase bid.
Kasey Kahne claimed the first wild-card berth, and Joey Logano, Keselowski’s teammate at Penske Racing, qualified for the Chase for the first time in his career, by rounding out the top 10 in points.
Logano edged four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon for the final spot in the field.
Kurt Busch finished second to make Furniture Row Racing the first single-car organization to make the Chase.