An unthinkable ending at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, September 7 altered the outcome of a critical race, realigned the 2013 Chase, and questioned the validity of NASCAR. (Photo by Charles Rouse)
The recent controversial events surrounding NASCAR have encouraged the skeptics of the viability of the sport, and it has disappointed those of us who hold this sport so near and dear. The range of emotions from Saturday night until now has been the widest I hope to ever experience as a fan of the sport. This is my story.
I have been following NASCAR since I was 5 years old. My family would take trips to Florida every February to see Mickey Mouse and Bill Elliott. The latter’s red #9 car was the first matchbox car I ever owned and I played with it until the wheels fell off. Sitting in the Daytona grandstands, feeling that roar as the field flies by, is one of my first memories and something that never grows old.
23 years and two driver changes later, my allegiance lies with Clint Bowyer. When my last driver, Jeremy Mayfield, got together with Walter White to see if Meth would make him go faster, I realized it was time for a change. This time I needed to choose more wisely.
I’m from Philadelphia. The only thing this town hates more than the Dallas Cowboys are people from Philly area who are Dallas Cowboy fans. We hate front-runners. Picking a driver like Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart was out of the question. When I heard Richard Childress say that Bowyer’s need to win was the most intense he’d seen since Dale Earnhardt, I knew I found my guy. I’ve been a Clint Bowyer fan through thick and thin, including leaving a championship caliber team to race for the upstart Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), but nothing could have prepared me for what these last five days would hold.
The details of the race are well known at this point. Bowyer was leading with 60 laps to go, but 53 laps later after falling out of the top 15, he was sliding sideways down the front straightaway. At first it seemed like the typical ending that I’ve been accustomed to the past few races. Bowyer has led more laps in the last three races than the first 23 combined, but has finishes of 14th, 39th and 25th to show for it. The frustration was muted only by the fact that Martin Truex Jr, Bowyer’s MWR teammate, had made it into the chase, and Jeff Gordon had not (see Phoenix, Fall 2012). Of course I knew the spin helped achieve this, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it happened intentionally.
ESPN came back from their post-race commercial break showing Bowyer’s in-car camera synced with his team’s radio communications. As I watched, a coy smile started to appear on my face followed by a bit of a giggle… followed by pure horror. In those few seconds I realized that in no way was this a laughing matter. This would call into question his integrity and credibility, along with his team’s, maybe even the entire sport’s. Last year, In a Nationwide race in Atlanta, Brad Keselowski threw a water bottle out of his car window, in effect bringing out a caution that assisted his team, though NASCAR never acknowledged as much. Keselowski’s post-race reaction to the accusation said all I needed to know. His evasiveness and “uncomfortability” made it more than apparent it had been intentional. I saw the same from Clint Bowyer Saturday night. He wasn’t his usual, jovial self. He looked as if he was realizing the full gravity of what he had just done, but he chose to deny it instead of owning up to the truth.
The PED controversy in Major League Baseball has given us plenty of opportunites to see professional athletes deny deny deny until the evidence is so stacked against them they have no choice but to finally admit their transgressions. Case in point: Ryan Braun. He’s been labeled a fraud by everyone outside of Milwaukee, and will probably never be able to regain his credibility. On the other side, you have Andy Pettitte who acknowledged his involvement with PEDs, took full responsibility, and now most fans don’t even remember it. In the moment, Bowyer decided to follow Braun’s line of thinking and I started to wonder if this would come back to haunt him in the future. Fortunately for him, NASCAR’s investigation found no evidence to suggest it was an intentional spin. But I guess it’s still too early to tell how the court of public opinion will rule.
As much as the spin is getting attention, it did not guarantee a different ending to the race. The team simply followed The Joker’s lead; “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.” Here’s how it worked:
The Chase includes two wildcards. They are awarded to the two highest ranked drivers outside of the top ten who have won during the current season. Kasey Kahne was the only driver with two wins outside of the top ten, so he had one of the wild card spots clinched. This is where it gets complicated. Before the spin, Ryan Newman was in the lead, looking like he would get his second win, capturing the final wild card spot. But after pit stops during the caution, Newman lost his lead. But the team still had more work to do. Joey Logano (one win) had fallen back to 11th in points holding the final wild card spot, but only trailing Jeff Gordon (winless) in 10th by 2 points. So if Logano could pick up a few points to leapfrog Gordon into the top ten, this would allow Truex to become the second wild card for the Chase, since he had a win and Gordon did not. Still with me? Good. Seeing that Logano was behind Bowyer and Brian Vickers (MWR’s third team), both were instructed to pit as the field took the final green flag of the night. As we know, the plan worked and Truex was awarded the final wild card spot by the slimmest of margins. At the time, I thought this was genius. NASCAR did not.
The resulting penalties for “manipulating the outcome of the race” were the largest in NASCAR history. Truex was bounced from the Chase field, sponsors started reviewing their options, and the perception of Michael Waltrip Racing and all of their employees, especially Clint Bowyer, may never recover. His tour through the ESPN family of networks on Tuesday did nothing to ease tensions. His comments were contrived and obviously prepared by MWR Public Relations officials. It was a sad sight. A driver for whom I have great respect, and a man for whom I have even more, looked irritated and uncomfortable. Not too many knew who Clint Bowyer was when I first started to follow him. Experiencing his rise from third team afterthought at Richard Childress Racing to championship contender over the past 6 years had me feeling vindicated for the time I invested. Now everyone knows his name, but the association is not for being a champion or a contender; it’s for being a cheater. I feel cheated. I don’t deserve this backlash. Neither does anyone who follows the sport. It’s not the WWE. It’s not a scripted television show. We deserve to be taken seriously, but Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing took that away from us on Saturday night. Only time will tell if we ever get it back.
The question everyone has been asking me is whether I will abandon Bowyer as my favorite driver. The answer is a resounding “No.” My disappointment in his lack of good judgment and foresight in the moment does not outweigh the great things he has done as a member of the NASCAR community. Just like a parent loving their child even after he does something boneheaded, it’s not in my nature to give up on someone after one dumb move. If something like this happens again, then maybe my opinion will change. But for now, I’ll still be glued to the TV this Sunday just like I have been every race day, cheering him on and sharing in the emotions of whatever happens next.