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MWR $lammed, but is it enough?
NASCAR levied record fines against Michael Waltrip Racing on Monday, but is $300,000 — not to mention the financial impact of losing a Chase spot — enough to ensure that what happened Saturday night at Richmond never ever happens again?
In addition to hitting MWR with a $300,000 fine — the largest monetary penalty in NASCAR history — NASCAR also penalized the Nos. 15, 55 and 56 teams of drivers Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr., respectively, 50 championship driver and owner points for actions detrimental to the sport.
The crew chiefs from all three teams have been placed on probation until the end of the year. MWR general manager Ty Norris, who also spots Vickers, drew an indefinite suspension because his radio instructions to his driver provided the best evidence that MWR was deliberately trying to manipulate the outcome of the race and gerrymander Truex into a Chase berth.
“It's a message from the league or the sanctioning body saying you can't do this and expect us not to react to it,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton.
With the point penalties assessed after the Richmond race and before the Chase standings are reset, Truex loses his Chase spot as the second wild card. Ryan Newman, who appeared to have the race won — and a Chase spot secured — before Bowyer's suspicious spin on Lap 393 turned the outcome upside-down, supplants Truex in the playoff.
Recordings of the radio chatter were damning. Crew chief Brian Pattie prompted Bowyer with seven laps left with ill-disguised code words. Vickers slowed dramatically on the subsequent restart before Norris called him to pit road. The moves enabled Joey Logano to remain in the top 10 in the point standings and open up a wild-card spot for Truex, knocking Jeff Gordon out of the top 10 and out of the Chase in the process.
While Helton didn’t believe there was “conclusive evidence that the 15 spin was intentional,” he said the most damning proof “was the direction that the 55 driver (Vickers) was given and the confusion around it, and then the conversation following that occurrence is the most clear part of that preponderance.”
However, Helton would not confirm whether any of the Waltrip principals acknowledged culpability in the plot — only that the radio conversations indeed happened.
And despite the relief offered to Newman, who was leading the race before Bowyer’s spin, Gordon received no redress whatsoever. Gordon was seventh in the running order at the time of the caution and would likely have qualified for a top-10 berth if the race had concluded under green.
On Monday night, the four-time Sprint Cup champion tweeted:
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!— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) September 10, 2013
Take me out of this completely. At this point all that matters to me is if @NASCAR decides to fix this then fix it completely!.— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) September 10, 2013
To Gordon’s point, competitors should never be able to change the course of NASCAR history, but will the $300,000 be enough of a deterrent in the future?
“It would (for) me,” Helton said. “I don't know. I don't know how to answer that question. But I wouldn't get hung up on the 300. I'd look at the 300, the ramifications of what the 50 points per team did, and the suspension. And I’ll also remind you that, and I think we've got a track record of this, this is unique for us. Today is a unique step for us. But we do have a track record and a history of ramping up a reaction from us if a trend continues until we stop the trend.''
MWR confirmed late Monday that the organization won’t exercise its right to appeal the penalty. However, the $300,000 is just the first area where MWR will feel the financial pain.
For finishing 11th in the points standings last year, Truex earned $5,216,091 in prize money before bonuses. There also is contingency money and the NASCAR/Sprint Point Fund that factors into the equation for the Chase contenders.
For Truex, that bumped last year’s winnings to $6,159,590 — and that was before sponsor performance bonuses.
While every sponsor contract differs, two industry experts claim that, depending on each sponsor’s performance clause, a team could stand to gain an additional $500,000 to $2 million depending on results on the track and sponsor mentions.
If the financial threat to teams is not severe enough to keep teams from gaming the system, just how does the sanctioning body intend to stop the madness moving forward?
Just as the media assembled an audio and video trail for the MWR case, the NASCAR control tower has timing and scoring at its fingertips to assemble a clearer picture as technology evolves. It’s just a question as to where and when the league chooses to use the tools at its disposal.
“The control tower, where the amount of timing and scoring information we have access to while the race is going, it evolves daily,” Helton said. “It becomes more proficient and more usable and more applicable to officiating the sport every weekend. We've been very clear about advancing technology and what we can use to better the sport, including bettering the officiating of the sport. We're all for that.
“One day there will be a way to scan 43 teams' times three or four persons per team and keep up with all that, but that's not today. I don't think it's reasonable for us to assume the responsibility without getting to that level of technology that can help us do that, to monitor a radio channel.
"I think we rely on what we see happen, and we use every camera that the broadcaster has at the racetrack in our own system to go back and pull up multiple scenes or views that the TV audience may never see to help us make decisions.”