LOUDON, N.H. — The order came from on high, from the crow’s nest atop the press box at Richmond International Raceway, where spotters were perched for the Federated Auto Parts 400 Sept. 7.
Clint Bowyer brought out the final caution of the cutoff race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, inexplicably spinning without contact with nine laps remaining. As the race was preparing to go back to green-flag conditions, Ty Norris, executive vice president and general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing, who was spotting for the No. 55 Toyota of Brian Vickers, made the decision to have his driver to pit under green with three laps to go.
Vickers [incredulously]: “You talking to me? We got to pit?’’
Norris: “Yeah, we’re going to pit. We’re going to pit.’’
Vickers [confused]: “What? I’ve got to what? . . . I don’t understand. Pit right now?’’
Norris [emphatically]: “We’ve got to pit this time. We need that one point.’’
Vickers: “10-4. So I got a tire going down?’’
With one lap remaining, Vickers complied with his boss’s request and pitted under green, finishing 24th, one lap down to winner Carl Edwards. Bowyer, whose spin triggered the chain of events, also pitted and finished two laps down in 25th.
The actions of Bowyer and Vickers enabled Joey Logano to move up to 10th in the Chase standings. It also gave their MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 Toyota, the second of two wild-card berths in the 12-man field over Ryan Newman, who lost a tiebreaker to Truex and was the odd man out despite finishing third in the race.
“Did, uh, Martin make it?’’ Vickers radioed to Norris afterward.
Norris: “I’ll see you after the race, Brian. I owe you a kiss.’’
While race officials scrambled to set up a postrace stage to introduce the Chase field, the fireworks that went off overhead weren’t the only incendiaries of that night. Newman was livid. Jeff Gordon, also just on the outside looking in, seethed. And their fans took to social media to vent their frustration about the legitimacy of the outcome.
Soon, NASCAR officials would become suspicious, as well. It became apparent to them something was fishy about the finish at Richmond, where there seemed to be more tradecraft than teamwork.
In its review of video, audio, timing, and scoring information, and other race data, NASCAR found the radio conversation between Norris and Vickers to be the smoking gun.
While they were unable to prove that Bowyer spun intentionally, NASCAR officials did conclude, based on the radio communication between Norris and Vickers, that MWR had manipulated the outcome.
While NASCAR teams always have operated under an unwritten code of ethics in which drivers are given latitude to allow a teammate to make an uncontested pass for track position, what wasn’t allowed was the kind of teamwork MWR displayed at Richmond.
“As multiple-car owners have become a very positive part of our sport, also comes with it, though, responsibility from NASCAR as well as the car owners to maintain a fair and level playing field,’’ said NASCAR president Mike Helton.
With the integrity and credibility of the sport at stake, NASCAR officials took swift action in severely sanctioning MWR, docking all three of its teams 50 owner points and all three drivers 50 points, which dropped Truex from 12th to 17th in the standings.
In addition, MWR crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer), Chad Johnson (Truex), and Scott Miller (Vickers) were placed on probation until Dec. 31. Norris was put on indefinite suspension, and MWR was hit with an unprecedented $300,000 fine.
“This, naturally, is a very significant reaction from NASCAR,’’ Helton said three days after the race.
But, Helton indicated, it was the order from Norris to Vickers that proved the most damaging evidence.
“The preponderance of things that happened by Michael Waltrip Racing [at Richmond], the most clear was the direction that the 55 driver was given, and the confusion around it, and then the conversation following that occurrence is the most clear part of that preponderance,’’ Helton said. “That’s the most clear piece of what we found through looking at all of the detail that led us to make the conclusion.’’
Waltrip, a driver turned owner, accepted full responsibility. It wound up costing MWR its long-time partnership with NAPA, which announced it was pulling its $16 million primary sponsorship of Truex’s car at season’s end.
MWR wound up absorbing a $20 million hit that included not only the $300,000 fine and NAPA sponsorship, but also $3.5 million in Chase bonuses.
“What the penalties were for was the 55 coming down pit road to give up a spot that enabled the 56 to make the Chase,’’ Waltrip said in an interview with Fox Sports 1. “It was impossible to defend, because we did it. But the caution was out and Ty was looking at the numbers and he was going, ‘Pit, pit, we need that position,’ and we pitted.”
“If I had been standing beside Ty at that moment, I don’t know that I would’ve done it any differently,’’ Waltrip admitted. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t have, because we’ve seen people give up positions all the time in this sport to give a teammate a point. It happens. We’ve seen a leader pull over so another guy can lead.’’
But those actions Waltrip cited “never directly affected such an important event,’’ he said.
“So I get it, I understand [NASCAR’s reaction],’’ Waltrip said. “Certainly, as things developed, we understood where we stood and we knew that we needed that point, but we didn’t have this complex plan about how we were going to manipulate this race to get Martin in.’’
Still, the damage had been done.
After NASCAR handed down its penalties, Norris expressed remorse on Twitter.
“In the final laps I made a call to pit the 55 to benefit a teammate,’’ Norris tweeted. “It was a split-second decision made in the middle of a chaotic finish bad on the circumstances. There was no time to think just act. Though it was to benefit MWR it is now clear it was to the detriment of the sport I love and have called home for the past 24 years.’’
The next day, NASCAR also placed Penske Racing and Front Row Motorspots on probation after it found evidence of collusion between Dave Gilliland’s Front Row crew to swap track positions with Penske driver Logano for unspecified considerations. NASCAR reacted by installing Gordon as the 13th driver in the Chase.
Once the teams arrived at Chicagoland Speedway for the Chase opener, NASCAR met with drivers and crew chiefs and cleared the air about what it deemed was proper and improper teamwork when it enacted a new rule, 12-4L, which called for NASCAR competitors “to race at 100 percent of their ability with the goal of achieving the best possible finishing position in an event.’’
Any intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event or encourage, persuade, or induce others to artificially alter the finishing position of the event would be subject to penalties.
“We addressed team rules and a variety of other things,’’ said Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO. “It was all designed to do what our fans expect, and that means that their driver and their team give 100 percent to finish as high up in a given race as possible.’’
NASCAR, in effect, drew the line on what was acceptable and not acceptable within the framework of teamwork.
“NASCAR didn’t really write any new rule,’’ said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “NASCAR just wrote the unwritten rule.’’
Among the accepted practices going forward: Contact while racing for position, performance issues, drafting, pitting, tire management, fuel management, yielding to a faster car, alternative pit strategy, long-fuel (mileage) strategy, allowing others to pass (lay over for one; lay over for all), going back to green on a restart.
Unacceptable practices: Offering track position in exchange for favor or material benefit, offering material benefit in exchange for track position, directing a driver to give up a position to the benefit of another driver, intentionally causing a caution, causing a caution for the benefit of or detriment of another driver, intentionally wrecking a competitor, intentionally pitting, pulling into the garage to gain advantage for another competitor.
With three Hendrick Motorsports teammates to contend with in the Chase, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who will start 11th in the 43-car grid for Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, didn’t expect to see NASCAR’s recently enacted rule have a chilling effect on his team’s ability to work with each other.
“I guess the ruling might have a different meaning for one team vs. another,’’ he said. “For us, and it’s the way we’ve raced, the only team orders we have ever had at Hendrick Motorsports is, ‘Don’t crash your teammate.’ That’s it. One very simple rule. And we still break that rule, at times. So, for us, it hasn’t been a big change. There is obviously a spotlight on things and I feel it was a rare situation. I’m sure it’s happened more than once in our sport, but it was pretty rare.
“And I think NASCAR has the language they need in the rulebook. We certainly have the eyeballs paying attention now for stuff like that and to jump on top of it the next time if it happens.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.