Associated Press composite photo
With 10 laps remaining in Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers were ahead of Joey Logano by well over a lap. When the checkered flag fell, Logano beat them both to the finish line with ease.
Normally a story like this would be a footnote at best, an example of how quickly fortunes can turn in the closing laps of a stock car race. After all, we’re talking about Logano getting by Bowyer and Vickers to salvage a 22nd-place finish. But in this case, shrugging your shoulders and saying “That’s racing” would be like saying the Chicago White Sox simply caught a few bad breaks in the 1919 World Series.
Not long after Carl Edwards did his burnout and followed it up with a back flip, the evidence started to trickle in, and it started to become apparent that Michael Waltrip Racing had just orchestrated a heist even Danny Ocean would envy.
Instead of Ryan Newman or possibly even Jeff Gordon getting into the Chase, Bowyer and Vickers appeared to move heaven and earth to allow Logano to sneak into the top 10 in the points standings, leaving a wild-card spot up for grabs. That spot ultimately went to MWR’s Martin Truex Jr., who won it from Newman in a tiebreaker.
The whole chain of events started with 10 laps left as a voice on Bowyer’s radio alerted him to the fact that Newman was well on his way to winning the race, which would have given him the second wild-card spot and eliminated Truex from Chase contention. After a period of silence, another voice came on Bowyer’s radio and asked him if his arm was tired.
As Bowyer drove his No. 15 Toyota into the very next turn, his hands darted erratically on the wheel and the car went into a spin, bringing out the caution flag that gave Truex new life.
While the spin has received most of the attention, the shenanigans didn’t end there. Bowyer’s car didn’t receive any damage in the spin, and once he got going again, he was still on the lead lap in the 16th position. Yet he somehow managed to finish the race two laps down in 25th.
This was accomplished through a curiously long pit stop and Bowyer taking a pass-through penalty to go another lap down even though his penalty for pitting to put new tires on before pit road was open was to go to the tail end of the longest line on the restart. Just like that, Bowyer was behind Logano.
While Bowyer has taken much of the heat for Saturday’s controversy, Vickers seemed to be involved as well. In fact, the chatter on Vickers’ radio was far more incriminating than what was said on Bowyer’s frequency. On lap 396 of 400, Vickers was told that he had to pit under green.
“I’ve got to what?” Vickers replied. “We’re probably going to pit here on green,” his crew said. “Are you talking to me?” Vickers said. “Yeah, we’re going to pit,” the crew responded. “What? I’ve got to pit? I don’t understand. Pit right now?" Vickers replied. “You’ve got to pit this time. We need that one point,” his crew said. “10-4. Do I got a tire going down?” Vickers replied. “Come on down pit road right now. Get a good look at it,” his crew said. “Did you find anything?” Vickers asked after pulling out of his pits. “I’ll see you after the race, Brian. I owe you a kiss,” his crew said.
To seal the deal, Vickers made his final lap around RIR at 79.564 miles per hour, about 30 to 50 mph off the pace.
After saying on Saturday night that nothing about Bowyer’s spin looked suspicious, NASCAR reversed course on Sunday and launched an investigation. If it is determined that Bowyer and Vickers were ordered by their team to take a dive in the final laps of Saturday’s race, no penalty is too stiff in my opinion.
NASCAR cannot afford this kind of hit to its credibility. No sport can. There’s a reason baseball players are banned for 50 games when they take performance-enhancing drugs while Pete Rose is suffering through a lifetime ban. A PED scandal may be embarrassing, but accusations of point shaving or taking a dive can destroy the very fabric of a sport.
If NASCAR doesn’t take action, it might as well brand itself sports entertainment and give Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick extra horsepower so they can battle for wins every week. When Bowyer and Truex both made the Chase last season, it was a feel-good story after the trials and tribulations MWR went through when it started fielding Cup cars in 2007.
What a difference a year makes.Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.