Drivers Martin Truex Jr., left, and Kurt Busch, right, celebrate making the Chase after Saturday night’s race at Richmond. (AP Photo)
CONCORD, N.C. — 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 at Richmond.
Michael Waltrip Racing was fined $300,000, and general manager Ty Norris received an indefinite suspension. Truex, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers were docked 50 points apiece.
“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,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, said in a release.
The 10-race Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland.
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 and out came a caution, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Newman losing the race and Bowyer teammate Truex earning the final Chase berth.
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 Gordon out of Chase contention in yet another attempt to help Truex.
Bowyer has denied he intentionally spun and Truex was an unwitting participant. There’s been silence from MWR officials, manufacturer Toyota and sponsors 5-Hour Energy (Bowyer) and NAPA Auto Parts (Truex), which pay millions to fund the race programs and likely owe MWR bonuses for each driver making the Chase.
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. “I knew this announcement was coming, but in the end, I don’t think it’s anything to compare or contrast or say that the positive outweighs the negative or even compensates for it.”
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.
NASCAR also put crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer), Scott Miller (Vickers) and Chad Johnston (Truex) on probation through the end of the year as part of the Richmond punishment.
In-car audio from Saturday night’s race framed the situation as Bowyer’s crew goading him into spinning his car to bring out the yellow in an effort to prevent Newman from winning.
“Thirty-nine is going to win the race,” Bowyer was told over his radio.
“Is your arm starting to hurt?” Pattie asked. After a pause, Pattie said, “I bet it’s hot in there. Itch it.”
Bowyer’s car then spun.
NASCAR did not have access to that footage until well after the race, and it is presumably among the materials that was reviewed before the punishment was announced.
Also, it became apparent early Sunday morning that Bowyer and Vickers further aided Truex by taking a dive over the final three laps.
When the race resumed with three laps to go, Gordon was poised to claim the 10th spot in the Chase, and Logano was ahead of Truex in position to claim the second wild card.
But Bowyer and Vickers both made pit stops in the final three laps that allowed Logano to improve his position and move ahead of Gordon. That bumped Gordon from contention and freed the wild card for Truex. Gordon was not eligible for the wild card.
The AP reviewed team communications for Bowyer and Vickers on Sunday, and Vickers was told by Norris to pit because “We need that one point.”
“We’re probably going to pit here on green,” Norris says.
“Are you talking to me?” a surprised Vickers replies.
Vickers continued to question the call, at one point asking: “I don’t understand, pit right now?”
“You’ve got to pit this time. We need that one point,” Norris says.
“10-4. Do I got a tire going down?” Vickers replies.
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.”
Bowyer’s radio communication was not as verbose, but he had already pitted twice after his spin, once to change the tire and once for Pattie to double-check for any damage. The team then called him down pit road a third time with no explanation just as the field went green.