I usually side with NASCAR when it comes to the way they officiate the sport. After all I learned a long time ago from one the greatest men I ever met, Mr. Jim Hunter, that the folks who run NASCAR are nothing more than fans that get to work inside the sport. He told me that they want nothing more than a level and fair playing field. And for years I believed that sincerely.
Not so much anymore.
The events that have transpired since the race at Richmond last Saturday night have undoubtedly tested those tasked with officiating NASCAR. Although we will never hear about it, there was no doubt many behind the scenes meetings and phone calls along with much handwringing that led to the decision to bump Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase and put Ryan Newman in. After all it was an unprecedented situation that’s never happened in the history of the Chase that dates back to 2004. NASCAR obviously felt that there was enough evidence to penalize the MWR team for manipulating the end of a race and thus the Chase, so they acted.
Okay, we get that, the evidence seemed to show that teams manipulated what happened on the track in order to put their driver into the Chase. Not simply win a race, but put a driver in position to win a championship, and that is wrong. Titles and races should be decided on the track by who is the faster team, not because one driver with no hope of winning anything is ordered to slow or pit to help another driver. That destroys the basic element of auto racing; the fastest car and driver wins, period.
In the end, NASCAR levied the largest fines in its history and moved Truex out and put Newman into the Chase. But wait a minute boys and girls, the story doesn’t end there. Later in the week members of the media began to point out radio conversations between another pair of teams that seemed to indicate that there may have been a conspiracy to have one driver slow in order to allow another driver to make up enough spots to make the Chase and bumping one Jeff Gordon out. On Friday NASCAR, specifically chairman Brian France, reacted by putting the two teams on probation and adding a 13th spot in what is normally a 12 driver Chase allowing Gordon to race for his fifth title.
Here’s the issue. If we all tried hard enough there is no doubt that we could listen to radio conversations that have occurred throughout the course of the year and find instances where one team or several teams might have conspired to manipulate the end of a race for their own benefit. It has happened before and will happen again. It might never be as blatant as what happened at Richmond, although to be fair no other race has so much on the line, but it has and will happen again; for NASCAR to police that seems like it would be a monumental task. But in the course of races outside the Chase it really shouldn’t matter all that much; if a slower car heeds the message to move over for a faster car then so be it. But bringing out a caution or intentionally spinning another driver has never been tolerated. In the case of the spin at Richmond, NASCAR said there seemed to be no clear convincing evidence to indicate that intention. There have been other cases in the past though where NASCAR has seen clear evidence of intention and has dealt with that, but not in this case.
Unfortunately NASCAR has opened a hole that may grow like a sinkhole in a Florida swamp. It could change NASCAR and motorsports as we know it. Anything that even smells like a team order, whether it is or not, will now be viewed as a conspiracy worthy of NASCAR intervention. And that’s just a shame.
NASCAR has yet to draw the line and until they do racing as we once knew it will be changed. Adding another driver to what has traditionally been a 12 driver field has opened the door for teams and fans to complain in the future. The bottom line is that only those teams who raced, and won, well enough during the regular season should have a chance to race for a title. If your season isn’t good enough, than sorry, see you next time. If your season was such that it comes down to single points or single laps and you lose, well then welcome to the world of professional completive sports. Games are won or lost in the bottom of the ninth, or with a last second field goal, it happens all the time. Yes there may be instances where blatant cheating surfaces and those should be dealt with, but if there is no clear evidence or even some doubt, then the decision has to go to the winner; to the victor go the spoils.
Bowing to pressure from social media as well as mainstream media without holding the line, shows that while NASCAR does listen the reaction may not always be right. It seems almost kneejerk in retrospect. And that’s not the way to run a sport. Clear concise rules, with clearly defined boundaries need to be established and adhered to, not changed in the middle of the game.
Perhaps NASCAR should have stopped while it was ahead. The rules were in place, the Chase field was set. Maybe NASCAR just needed to grow a pair, tell everyone to hush and let’s get this thing settled on the track. Sorry Jeff, your team came up a little short, maybe next year (and this is coming from a longtime Gordon supporter).
NASCAR should have slammed the door shut and prepared to drop the green flag Sunday as 12 drivers raced for a title. Instead, perhaps bowing to pressure off the track, for the first time in history we will have 13 drivers racing for a title. I wonder what Jim Hunter would say about that?
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