CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With one suspicious snap of the steering wheel, Clint Bowyer changed the outcome of a race and maybe the championship, too.
Accidental or intentional, his spin in the closing laps at Richmond International Raceway set in motion a chain of events that has shrouded the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and raised many questions about the potential for a race team to manipulate pivotal moments of a race.
Now NASCAR is reviewing evidence to determine if Michael Waltrip Racing deliberately altered Saturday’s race, costing both Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon spots in the Chase and benefitting MWR driver Martin Truex Jr.
NASCAR President Mike Helton told The Associated Press that race officials did not immediately see anything to believe Bowyer’s spin with seven laps left was suspicious. The spin came while Newman was leading, and it brought out the caution that set in motion a chain of events that cost Newman both the victory and a berth in the 12-driver Chase field. He was battling Truex for the final spot.
“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 denied he spun intentionally.
“We had a flat tire or something. It just snapped around,” Bowyer said.
In-car audio framed the situation as his crew goading him into spinning his car to bring out the yellow in an effort to prevent Newman from winning 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.
That footage is presumably among the materials Helton was reviewing Sunday.
Also, it became apparent Sunday that Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers further aided Truex by taking a late dive.
When the race resumed with three laps to go, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was poised to claim the 10th spot in the Chase, and Joey 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 to claim the 10th Chase berth. 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, and Vickers was told by MWR General Manager Ty Norris to pit because “we need that 1 point.”
“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 had already pitted twice after his spin, once to change the tire and once for Pattie to double-check for damage. The team then called him down pit road a third time with no explanation just 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 over MWR’s actions.