As the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season begins to wind down, things are heating up. Richmond, Virginia, served as the final opportunity for drivers on the ‘bubble’ to make their way into the Chase. Though not in contention for this year's Chase, Casey Mears and the #13 GEICO team were focused on their journey, as well, and aimed towards a different goal as their program continues to move towards the next level.
When practice got underway on Friday, Mears would end up 34th and 29th in the respective sessions. He would later find himself sandwiched on the starting grid between Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards after qualifying 25th. His lap saw him make quick work of the ¾-mile racing facility and circle it in just 21.036 seconds, at a rate of speed of 128.351 miles per hour.
The Fall Richmond race is usually accompanied by either rain or extreme heat, but Saturday night found favor with the racing gods and temperatures sat comfortably in the 70’s. A packed house was on-hand as the Saturday night lights saw the green flag turn an anxious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field loose for 400-laps of racing. Mears and his #13 GEICO Ford Fusion started 25th, but found themselves at odds with each other as the laps began to click off. Handling had the Bakersfield, CA, native frustrated and he dropped as low as 35th, but quickly worked his way back up to 23rd before making a scheduled green flag pit stop on lap 95. After the Germain Racing pit crew outfitted Mears with four fresh tires, fuel and much needed adjustments, the GEICO Ford returned to the race and began making progress. On lap 115, Mears alerted crew chief, Bootie Barker: “You helped everything on that last stop. It’s a lot better.”
When debris sent the caution flag waving on lap 135, Barker took the opportunity to update Mears on his status, as well as the team’s strategy for making up lost ground. “The car’s a lot better, Casey, and you’re a lot faster now. We’ll pit now and take the wavearound later when we have fresher tires.” The race soon went back to green and Mears and his #13 GEICO Ford continued making progress and the driver’s excitement was evident through his radio communication. On lap 207, Mears let his team know that things were coming together. “Whatever you guys did on that first stop really brought this thing to life. We’re in the hunt; we’re racing these guys.”
Unfortunately, as the race began to wind down, Mears’ labor of love turned into plain labor when his car betrayed him and returned to its old ways. On lap 305, he reported, “It feels like it did on the first run, but not quite as bad.” He was running in 26th place and managed to continue to drive hard and maintain his position. By lap 325, however, it was presenting a more significant challenge and Mears became concerned. “This thing is terrible. Something’s wrong; a bad set of tires or something.”
Undaunted, Mears and his #13 GEICO Ford Fusion battled hard over the last 75 laps and managed to not lose any positions. When the checkered flag halted the Federated Auto Parts 400, Mears recorded a 26th place finish, salvaging an otherwise tough night.
“It was a challenging night, but we kept working on the car and our pit stop made it a lot better,” Mears said. “The #13 GEICO Ford turned around after that stop and we were able to make up a lot of ground. We were in good shape until the end there. Not quite sure what happened, but I’m glad we were able to at least get a decent finish. We’re looking forward to getting to Chicago next week for the GEICO 400. That race is special to us for the obvious reasons. I love how GEICO supports our sport and I’m looking forward to doing some appearances to help promote their signature race.”
The closing laps of the event brought drama not only for Mears, but for the rest of the field as well. As the points swung nearing the finish, teams began to try and figure out the best way to guarantee their position in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and some went further than the rule book allows.
In an almost unprecedented Monday evening ruling, NASCAR issued penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing following the sanctioning body’s review of Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
MWR was found to have violated Section 12-4 (Actions detrimental to stock car racing). As a result, MWR’s three teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (No. 15, 55, 56) have been penalized with the loss of 50 championship driver and 50 championship owner points, respectively.
These point penalties are assessed following the season’s 26th regular season race and not after the seeding for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Therefore, the point total for the No. 56 car driven by Martin Truex Jr. is reduced to 691, putting him in 17th position and eliminating him from the second Wild Card berth for the Chase field. Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 car, now moves up into the Chase as the second Wild Card participant.
NASCAR has also fined the MWR organization $300,000 and indefinitely suspended Ty Norris, MWR Executive Vice President/General Manager and spotter for the No. 55 car, for violating Section 12-4. The three crew chiefs – Brian Pattie (No. 15), Scott Miller (No. 55) and Chad Johnston (No. 56) – have all been placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31.
“Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that.”
With the points from Saturday's race finally made official, the Chase Across America tour began on September 10. During this event, all 12 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contenders will take part in a 12-market media tour, including stops at racetracks and on television.
Each Chase track, along with New York City and ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., will host a Chase driver for a day of special events and media availabilities as NASCAR’s championship playoffs begin on Sunday, Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN.
On Sept. 10, Dale Earnhardt Jr made appearances in New York City, while Clint Bowyer participated in a somewhat strained interview with former driver turned analyst Ricky Craven on ESPN.
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the rest of the field will be scattered across the country promoting the Chase. Matt Kenseth will be in Chicago, Joey Logano in New Hampshire, Kyle Busch in Dover, Kurt Busch in Kansas, Jimmie Johnson in Chicago, Greg Biffle in Talladega, Kasey Kahne in Martinsville, Kevin Harvick in Texas, Ryan Newman in Phoenix, and Carl Edwards in Homestead.
On Thursday, Sept. 12 at 10 a.m. CT, all 12 drivers will be at the Navy Pier Lakeview Terrace in Chicago for the annual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Day.
It will be interesting to see if Joey Logano is still in the Chase this weekend, as recent revelations about a conversation between his spotter, team, and Roger Penske along with the spotter from the #38 Front Row Motorsports team of David Gilliland threw yet another long shadow over the sport.
According to a press release issued by NASCAR on Wednesday afternoon, NASCAR is aware of reports about the #22 and #38 radio communications at Richmond International Raceway and is looking into it, but has yet to see anything in full context that requires any action.
This weekend, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s playoffs, begin at Chicagoland Speedway with the GEICO 400. ESPN will have a live telecast on Sunday, Sept. 15, with NASCAR Countdown at 1 p.m. ET and the race’s green flag at 2:16 p.m. The NASCAR Nationwide Series also competes at the 1.5-mile track on Saturday, Sept. 14, and ESPN2 will air the race at 3:30 p.m., with the green at 3:47 p.m. Also from Chicagoland, ESPN2 airs NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13. All NASCAR programming on ESPN and ESPN2 is also available on computers, smartphones and tablets through WatchESPN and the WatchESPN app.
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