NASCAR’s Sprint Cup drivers are still trying to shake off the “cheating” label that has shrouded the sport over the last month. They’ll be at Kansas Speedway for the year’s biggest entertainment weekend in Wyandotte County.
There wasn’t this much controversy last April when the Sprint Cup drivers were in town. That’s because it wasn’t crunch time for race teams trying to command enough points to land one of the 12 spots in the Chase. But when it was crunch time last month in Richmond, Virginia, racing writer Jim Pedley says the methods used to get into the Chase raised some serious issues.
“This was tantamount to point-shaving or in boxing taking a dive,” says Pedley. “It’s that serious. The whole integrity of the sport was brought into question with something like this.”
The Chase covers the last ten races of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup season. This weekend’s stop at Kansas Speedway is the fourth leg of the Chase. The payoffs to making the Chase are huge. When added up, Pedley says millions of dollars.
“There’s bonus for drivers and teams. There’s bonus money from sponsor to teams. There’s bonus money just getting into The Chase,” says Pedley. “You get into the elevated points fund. There’s a lot of money involved and for sponsors it’s the be all. They want to be in that chase.”
The peculiarities started with a late-race spinout by Emporia’s Clint Bowyer, followed by a weird pit stop by Brian Vickers. They are teammates at Michael Waltrip Racing.
As a result of those developments, plus odd chatter over the car radios, the Waltrip Racing team was accused of manipulating results. A third team member, Martin Truex Jr.,clinched an apparent spot in The Chase.
That’s when Brian France, NASCAR’s president and CEO, reacted.
“What we’re about is the best racing in the world with the best drivers giving 100 percent of their ability,” says France. “To the extent that we got off of that for any reason, it’s our job to have the rules of the road, or the rules of the race, such that achieves that every day.”
NASCAR determined that Michael Waltrip Racing crossed the line, so it levied severe penalties. NASCAR fined the team $300,000, suspended or placed on probation the leading crew members, and docked points from Bowyer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, sympathized with Bowyer.
“Clint is a good guy and obviously was just following orders. He did some things that were out of character and regrettable,” says Earnhardt, “He feels terrible to have any involvement in it. I know that for a fact.”
Though Bowyer says he hasn’t ducked the spotlight, he’s reluctant to disclose details.
“The one thing I can tell you is I’m tired of talking about it,” says Bowyer.
Most notably, NASCAR denied Truex from entering The Chase, and installed Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver.
“All we all want to do is race our guts out every single lap,” says Truex. “None of us want to go out there and give up a spot, or race somebody different because our teammate is running for a championship.”
Since then, in a sport driven by sponsorships, the Waltrip team is feeling the crunch. Though NAPA’s sponsorship in NASCAR was uncertain anyway, the company announced that it is ending its association with the Waltrip team after this season. That’s roughly $18 million dollars a year.
The sponsor of Bowyer’s car, Five Hour Energy, is holding off on its decision until the season is over. Pedley says it comes down to this.
“The desire not to be viewed as a cheater overrides their desire to get into The Chase,” says Pedley.