CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR is reviewing evidence to determine if Michael Waltrip Racing deliberately attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race that set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
NASCAR President Mike Helton told The Associated Press before Sunday’s Truck Series race at Iowa that officials in the scoring tower did not immediately see anything to believe Clint Bowyer’s spin with seven laps remaining at Richmond was suspicious.
It brought out a caution with Ryan Newman leading Saturday night and poised to claim the final berth in the 12-driver Chase field. Instead, it set in motion a chain of events that led to Bowyer teammate Martin Truex Jr. earning the final berth and Newman losing both the race and a spot in the Chase.
When Bowyer spun to bring out the caution, Helton said race control, located in a suite above the track, could not determine if it was done deliberately to aid Truex.
“We didn’t see anything that indicated that anything like that was taking place. And it’s natural when everything was as close as it was between who was going to get in and not go in to scratch your heads and try to figure out and wonder why,” Helton said. “But we didn’t see anything initially (Saturday) night that indicated that, but certainly we’ll go back through all the video and everything to be sure, because we take the responsibility very serious to be sure that it’s – that everybody has had a fair chance.”
An ESPN replay that included communication between Bowyer and his team implied the spin was deliberate. Bowyer was shown the video after the race and denied he spun intentionally, a claim he repeated throughout the postrace activities.
“We had a flat tire or something. It just snapped around,” Bowyer said, later adding, “I know it’s a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don’t look too much into it.”
But the in-car audio framed the situation as his crew goading him into spinning his car to bring out the yellow while Newman, who was battling Truex for the second wild-card berth in the Chase, was leading the race.
“Thirty-nine is going to win the race,” Bowyer was told over his radio.
“Is your arm starting to hurt?” crew chief Brian 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 audio until after the race, and it is presumably among the materials Helton was reviewing Sunday.
Also, it became apparent early Sunday morning that Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers further aided Truex by taking a dive over the final three laps.
The race resumed with three laps to go and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon poised to claim the 10th spot in the Chase, with Joey Logano in line for the second wild-card.
But Bowyer and Vickers both made pit stops that helped Logano improve his finishing position enough that he claimed the 10th Chase berth, thus eliminating Gordon from contention. It freed up the wild card for Truex, and Gordon was not eligible for the wild card.
The AP reviewed team communications for both Bowyer and Vickers on Sunday, and Vickers was told by MWR general manager Ty Norris to pit because “we need that 1 point.”
“We’re probably going to pit here on green,” Norris says.
“Are you talking to me?” a surprised Vickers asks.
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 1 point,” Norris replies.
“10-4. Do I got a tire going down?” Vickers asked.
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 is not as verbose, but he pitted twice after his spin, and the team called him down pit road for a third time with no explanation as the field went green.
It’s not uncommon in NASCAR for teammates to help each other with track position, so on its face, the calls for the two MWR drivers to pit aren’t that egregious. But added with Bowyer’s spin, fans were crying foul on MWR’s actions, especially since it cost both Gordon and Newman spots in the 10-race Chase.
MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip was calling the Truck race for Fox Sports 1 on Sunday and declined to comment to AP, saying he was too busy preparing for the broadcast.
Gordon posted on Twitter that he felt bad for both drivers.
“Was feeling pretty bad about missing the #Chase but after seeing all the details coming out now I feel even worse for @RyanNewman39,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Newman downplayed the significance of Bowyer’s spin because he said his pit crew still had a chance to put him in position to win the race after the caution.
“They are teammates. I don’t know if he looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading, it doesn’t matter,” Newman said after the race. “If that was the case, I’ll find out one way or the other. At the same time, we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn’t. That being said, we’re out.”