While Clint Bowyer's spin got all the attention at Richmond, a few questions from a puzzled Brian Vickers and the promise of a post-race kiss led to one hefty punishment from NASCAR.
Ryan Newman replaced Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship on Monday night when NASCAR penalized Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of last weekend's race.
MWR was fined $300,000, and general manager Ty Norris received an indefinite suspension. Truex, Bowyer and Vickers were docked 50 points apiece — but Bowyer's deduction does not affect his position in the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicago.
"We penalize to ask for it to not happen again," NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "It's a message from the league or the sanctioning body saying 'You can't do this.'"
Newman was leading with seven laps remaining Saturday night at Richmond, where a victory would have given him the final spot in the 12-driver Chase field. But Bowyer spun to bring out a caution, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Newman losing the race and the final berth in the 12-driver Chase field, which instead went to Bowyer teammate Truex.
While examining the situation, NASCAR reviewed communication between Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing crew that seemed to indicate the spin was deliberate, as well as additional evidence that suggested MWR had Bowyer and Vickers take a dive over the final three laps so Joey Logano would knock Jeff Gordon out of Chase contention in yet another attempt to help Truex.
NASCAR did not adjust the standings to put Gordon into the Chase — he was in before Bowyer's spin — because Helton said it was impossible to address all the scenarios.
"We don't react to the ripple effect of an occurrence because I don't think there's any way we can reasonably do that," Helton said. "We look at the incident and only the incident because we know from experience that if you try to look at the ripple effect of an incident, you can't cover all those bases. You can't ever come up with a conclusion that is equitable and credible across the board."
Newman was moved into the Chase because the points deductions to the MWR drivers were made to their totals at the conclusion of Saturday night's race. Once Truex lost his 50 points, it dropped him to 17th in the standings and below Newman, who then moved into position for the second wild card into the Chase field.
Gordon was never eligible for the wild card, and MWR tried to further manipulate the standings by knocking him out of the top 10 to make sure Logano didn't grab the wild card the team wanted for Truex. They did it by having Vickers and Bowyer pit in the closing laps of the race, which was revealed in team communications reviewed by The Associated Press on Sunday.
It was those transmissions between Norris and a surprised Vickers that alarmed NASCAR.
"We're probably going to pit here on green," Norris says.
"Are you talking to me?" Vickers replies in surprise.
"Yeah, we're going to pit," Norris says.
"What? I've got to pit? I don't understand. Pit right now?" Vickers says in disbelief.
"You've got to pit this time. We need that one point," Norris responds.
"10-4. Do I got a tire going down?" Vickers says.
Vickers then pitted as the field went green. When he asked after if his crew found anything with the tire, Norris replied, "I'll see you after the race, Brian, I owe you a kiss."
Helton indicated Monday that conversation between Norris and Vickers, with Vickers' confusion over the directives he was given, was the smoking gun against MWR.
"The preponderance of things that happened ... the most clear was the direction that the 55 driver was given and the confusion around it, and then the conversation following that occurrence," Helton said. "That's the most clear piece of evidence."
Waltrip also mentioned the sequence when he apologized in a statement on Monday night.
"What occurred on the No. 55 radio at the end of Saturday night's race in Richmond was a split-second decision made by team spotter Ty Norris to bring the No. 55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase," he said. "We regret the decision and its impact."
Norris also apologized in a series of tweets posted late Monday night.
"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," he posted.
Gordon's reaction to NASCAR's ruling focused on Truex, who did nothing to land in his teammates' mess, and Bowyer, who escaped unscathed.
"Feel bad for Truex. He got in under controversy now out due to it. But the guy who started all of this not effected at all??? Don't agree!" Gordon posted on Twitter.
Bowyer denied Saturday night he intentionally spun and Truex was an unwitting participant. Waltrip said the team will learn from what happened and move on.
The controversy surrounding Saturday's race put a damper on Newman's Monday announcement that he had reached a deal with Richard Childress Racing to replace Jeff Burton next season in the No. 31 Chevrolet.
"What happened to me Saturday night is the toughest thing that I've ever gone through in any kind of racing in my 30 years of driving because of the way everything went down," Newman said.
Now Newman gets the chance to compete for the title in his final races with Stewart-Haas Racing. He won the Brickyard this year and has 17 career victories overall.
"Obviously, we're very pleased with NASCAR's decision to provide Ryan Newman's rightful place in this year's Chase," SHR co-owner Tony Stewart said in a statement. "NASCAR was put in a very difficult position Saturday night 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."
MWR will not appeal the penalties, which included probation for crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer), Scott Miller (Vickers) and Chad Johnston (Truex) through the end of the year.
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