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NASCAR still humming along after last fall’s Richmond scandal

Apr 21, 2014, 1:21 PM EDT

Federated Auto Parts 400 Getty Images

This weekend, NASCAR returns to the scene of the crime.

The Easter break is over, and the Sprint Cup Series will get back to racing this coming Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway – its first visit to “The Action Track” since America’s most popular form of motorsport was turned upside down.

Last fall at RIR, and with a Chase bid for then-driver Martin Truex Jr. on the line, Michael Waltrip Racing attempted to ensure that he would be involved in the post-season.

With just a handful of laps remaining, MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun out to put the race under caution with seven laps to go. Another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, was then told to pit just prior to the final restart.

For a moment, it looked like the tactics had worked as Truex was able to improve his position enough to make the Chase. But two days later, NASCAR lowered the boom.

Truex was out of the Chase after he (along with Bowyer and Vickers) lost 50 points, enabling Ryan Newman to move into the post-season.

Later, Jeff Gordon – one of those affected by MWR’s maneuver – was also added to the Chase as a 13th driver.

Then loyal sponsor NAPA decided to leave MWR behind after the scandal, later resurfacing as a backer for Nationwide Series young gun Chase Elliott and JR Motorsports.

And so, MWR was forced to downsize to its current two-car form, a third car only appearing on occasion. Truex is now at Furniture Row Racing and crew chief Chad Johnston is now at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The scandal broke at the worst possible time for the sport, as it prepared to enter the 10th year of the Chase format. It wanted to promote but instead had to defend its very credibility.

But as Richmond looms once again, it appears NASCAR has weathered the storm.

Some of the reason for that comes down to Brian France’s swift decision on how to punish MWR after Richmond.

The NASCAR CEO may have been, at his own admission, “pissed off,” at the time, but he was clear-headed enough to know that a reaction from the sanctioning body post-Richmond could not wait.

“It was going to be really tough, especially for the teams that got penalized, losing sponsors; that was no fun for anybody,” he said of the situation in December. “But I knew that our credibility would be preserved if we did the right thing and we acted swiftly.”

NASCAR also caught a break in how the 2013 Chase ultimately played out. Two of the more non-controversial Cup drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth wound up dueling for the title while Bowyer – who kept his Chase spot despite his points penalty – was never really a factor.

Bullet…Make that big bullet…dodged.

With that, NASCAR took the off-season opportunity to unveil yet another revision to the Chase format, which virtually ensures drivers a place in the post-season if they can win in the regular season.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. It took eight races before the first repeat winner of the 2014 season finally emerged with Kevin Harvick at Darlington.

The focus has been on the racing, just as France and his team in Daytona Beach had surely hoped for.

Even if the Richmond visit is sure to conjure memories of last fall’s incident for everyone, that focus likely won’t be supplanted.

Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon hasn’t won yet. Ditto for Johnson and Kenseth, the two main title rivals of one year ago.

Throw in the potential fireworks that always come with close-quarter short track racing, and we should have a good show on tap for Saturday night under the lights.

Life may have gotten a bit hairy for NASCAR, but things are humming along now.

  1. techmeister1 - Apr 21, 2014 at 3:08 PM

    Truex got screwed and everyone else got off essentially scot-free.

    • bear1138 - Apr 22, 2014 at 6:33 AM

      …and Michael Waltrip Racing. They lost a very competitive team with the 56. Their win at Sonoma last year was long overdue. Now MWR has one less (very good) team to gather and bounce information off of. They were forced to downsize and lost talented people like Chad Johnston who is now Tony Stewart’s crew chief. Michael Waltrip racing is not running as good as they were a year ago, that’s for sure.

      But this was all a direct result of NAPA leaving, which I’m sure NASCAR couldn’t have foreseen. At least the message was adequately sent to curtail this sort of thing in the future. As a result I do think NASCAR took proper action.

  2. lawburgtn - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    Scandal???? You name a racing series where there are not “team orders” made to benefit another driver on the team. That whole incident was blown WAY out of proportion!

    Want to talk scandal??? Let’s look at NASCAR rules enforcement over its lifetime. Also, let’s look at how new rules are implemented to “level the playing field”, but actually work in favor of some of the bigger teams. Also, what about the years where teams high enough were guaranteed a spot just for showing up and smaller teams were forced to go home and some eventually shut down. That is a lot more scandalous to me than “team orders”!

    • jobber33 - Apr 22, 2014 at 12:02 AM

      If they truly want to level the playing filed, they will do like they did back in the IROC races. Haves Nascar set up the cars to where their all the exact same and see who actually has the talent to drive.

      This “scandal” has been going on for YEARS. It was no different than letting a teammate pass you to lead a lap for the point. Letting teammates pass you for position, don’t forget the days where drivers used to throw water bottles out their windows to bring out a caution. This is how Nascar survived and ran for years. Now all of a sudden what happened last year is a SCANDAL?

      You are 100% correct about the team order thing as well. Even in moto cross they have stuff going on. They want to eliminate the cheating but it still exist with the big name teams and will never change. If they want to stop all of this crap, they should suspend not only the crew chief but the driver as well. Whether he knew about it or not. Just for example, if they caught the 24, 48 or the 88 team cheating the driver should sit out too. That was not a knock against Hendrick but like I said, an example.

      • bear1138 - Apr 22, 2014 at 8:00 AM

        IROC was an interesting concept (even though it heavily favored the stock car drivers), but drivers have different styles and require different set-ups. The ability of a driver to relay information about what the car is doing and what the car needs to go faster is part of what makes a great driver. And a crew chief’s ability to make adjustments and set-up the car – that’s all part of the teamwork aspect of the sport.

        So in my opinion, that would hurt the sport…….however it would be cool to have another IROC series with the best drivers from all motorsports in identical cars. But make them race more than paved 1.5 mile ovals like they used to do….add short tracks, road courses, dirt tracks. Tony Stewarts Eldora race was very cool. Unfortunately with NASCAR’s grueling schedule, it would be tough for drivers to commit to anything else.

    • bear1138 - Apr 22, 2014 at 7:40 AM

      One team INTENTIONALLY throwing a race or INTENTIONALLY creating a caution to manipulate the outcome – particularly in the final 10 laps of a race when the results of not only the race, but the Chase seem imminent – that’s clearly a different situation then two teammates mutually benefitting each other by drafting or giving each other room early in a race (heck sometimes that’s just smart racing and we see it even among drivers who AREN’T teammates).

      So, clearly, this was something out of the norm and worthy of a scandal.

      As for NASCAR making rules to benefit the big teams…..huh??? How?

      Only the top 35 rule comes to mind, but I think that was just an effort by NASCAR to attract and protect the big multi million dollar sponsorships from missing a race – this was during the severe economic downturn and NASCAR was feeling the effects.

      In any event, that rule is gone. NASCAR has been conscientious of keeping costs down in the sport. That’s why they have the one-engine per weekend rule.

      I think NASCAR does a good job of keeping a level playing field. We’ve had what, 8 or 9 races and just had our first repeat winner of the year. There’s about 25-30 cars who are adequately funded and are capable of winning any weekend. The sport has never been this competitive or has seen this type of parity,

      So I fail to see the validity of your complaints. Ya, there’s 5-10 underfunded “field fillers” in the race every week. Is this who you’re concerned about? I don’t get it.

  3. theracefan - Apr 22, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    I am sure France has something up his sleeve this year to determine outcome of the chase. It’s not like cheating is new to NASCAR by either the CEO or another team.

    • bear1138 - Apr 22, 2014 at 7:46 AM

      So you think Brian France wanted Jimmie Johnson to dominate and make a stinker out of his Chase for 6 of the last 8 years?

      If NASCAR was fixing races, I’m sure the results would be a lot different. You people make me laugh.

  4. photog645 - Apr 22, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    NASCAR. What a joke! They are an entertainment venue masquerading as a racing series. Cookie cutter cars, BORING racing, and a place for drivers from other real racing series to go and die at the end of their careers! The Chase? This is really the biggest joke of all in NASCAR! NASCAR has gotten to be nothing but hype!

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