Under normal circumstances, Jeff Gordon said, he would have declined NASCAR’s 12th-hour offer to make him the 13th driver in the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
But NASCAR’s regular-season finale Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway was run under anything but normal circumstances. The outcome of the Federated Auto Parts 400 was called into question by allegations it had been manipulated by Michael Waltrip Racing.
Had the 400-lap race run its natural course, Gordon said, he would have lived with the result, even if it meant having to sit out the Chase.
“But we didn’t get to see the race play out,’’ said Gordon, citing a late-race spin by Clint Bowyer that helped MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. win a tiebreaker over Ryan Newman for the last of two Chase wild-card berths.
That triggered a chain of seismic events last week. NASCAR hit MWR with a historic $300,000 fine and its drivers and crew chiefs were docked 50 points, which knocked Truex out of the Chase and installed Newman as the 12th man.
“We don’t know what the results were going to be, because the circumstances of that spin changed everything,’’ said Gordon, who believed he had done all he could to earn a spot in the Chase by winning the pole and finishing eighth at Richmond.
The day after NASCAR lowered the boom on MWR, allegations arose of possible collusion between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports, which sought to swap the track position of its driver, David Gilliland, with that of Penske driver Joey Logano for unspecified considerations.
Last Friday, NASCAR stepped in and placed both teams on probation and took the unprecedented measure of installing Gordon, the unsuspecting victim in all this, as the Chase’s 13th driver.
Now Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, has gone from being the odd man out to the odd man in, as the Chase continues Sunday at Loudon, N.H., with the Sylvania 300.
“To me, that is the only reason I’m accepting being in the 13th, because under normal circumstances, I would say, ‘No, that’s not right,’ ” Gordon said. “But under these circumstances, I feel there is enough reason for us to be in. I know how hard we worked and that we earned the right to be in.’’
Gordon’s late inclusion marks the second year in a row car owner Rick Hendrick had all four of his cars qualify for the Chase.
“I applaud NASCAR for really looking at things and trying to make it right,’’ Hendrick said before last weekend’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “I thought he deserved to be in the race and I’m glad he’s in the Chase.’’
Tony Stewart, co-owner of Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing, issued a statement last week that echoed Hendrick’s sentiments after NASCAR reinstated Newman in the Chase. NASCAR’s sanctions against MWR overshadowed Newman’s announcement last Tuesday that he had agreed to drive next season for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased with NASCAR’s decision to provide Ryan Newman’s rightful place in this year’s Chase,’’ Stewart said. “NASCAR was put in a very difficult position 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.’’
But, being the consummate racer he is, Newman felt it never should have come down to that.
“I just know that we were deserving of it at one point without a doubt Saturday night, and we put ourselves in that position,’’ said Newman, who was leading at Richmond when Bowyer spun out with nine laps remaining in the 400-lap affair. “To me, there was nothing up to that point that would have changed that until Clint spun out and that changed everything.
“I was still disappointed in the fact we still had the opportunity to control our destiny — and we didn’t do that. That would’ve changed everything on our part. It may not have changed everything on Jeff’s or Truex’s or Logano’s part, but we still had control of our own destiny and didn’t pull that off.
“So I was disappointed from that standpoint.’’
Gordon’s inclusion was largely welcomed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates as a just action. But one teammate, Jimmie Johnson, believed the 12-man field should not have grown to 13 drivers, saying someone else should have been removed to make room for Gordon.
“As a competitor and one of the 12 that was in the Chase, you just changed the odds and the ratio tremendously by adding a 13th car,’’ Johnson said. “I feel Jeff should be in, so I guess the No. 22 [Logano] would be the one outside looking in, if they removed one.
“That is a good team. They won the championship last year with the No. 2 [Brad Keselowski] and Joey is doing a great job and earning a lot of points.
“It just changes the dynamic of the Chase quite a bit to have 13 cars in there.’’
Newman and Gordon made the most of their reprieve at Chicagoland Speedway, where both had top 10 efforts in the Geico 400. Newman finished 10th to climb to eighth in the Chase standings, while Gordon’s sixth-place effort enabled him to rise from 13th to seventh in the points.
“I’m very appreciative, very thankful to be in, and 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,’’ Gordon said. “I wish that we could have just raced for it [at Richmond], but that wasn’t the case.
“Now here we are as a 13th car and in. Now we just try to take that opportunity and make the most of it.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.