An unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances: changing the NASCAR paradigm

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs
"You don't go cause a caution. You don't go wreck another guy out there to win the championship for them.  There are certain lines, and I think that the lines have been, obviously, crossed in this situation." - Jeff Gordon  
For the second time in the week since the checkered flag flew at Richmond, NASCAR held a press conference that announced a change in the Sprint Cup Chase lineup.

Friday afternoon NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and NASCAR President Mike Helton addressed the media at Chicagoland Speedway to announce the outcome of the investigation into allegations that Penske Racing’s No. 22 team negotiated a deal with the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team of David Gilliland. The so-called deal allegedly allowed Joey Logano to make up spots on the track to help him qualify for the Chase.

Audio of the radio chatter between Gilliland and his spotter implied the whole Penske management team was there brokering a deal. Gilliland’s lap times fell off dramatically. Logano made the Chase.

Mike Helton explained the situation.

“As you're well aware, we've been looking at a lot of video, audio and timing and scoring information and other data from the Richmond race. We reacted earlier this week and then based on further due diligence, what we're determined to do -- what we've decided is in addition to what other actions we've taken, we're going to put Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing both on probation for the balance of the year for actions detrimental.”

So that means Penske struck a deal with Gilliland and Front Row to help get Logano in the Chase, right? Gilliland took a fall in exchange for some future consideration, so he and Logano should be penalized in such a way that Logano was no longer eligible for the Chase, right?

Not exactly.

France said, “We did not conclusively determine that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports actually did anything in terms of on the track that we can conclusively say there was a quid pro quo or altering of the event. As Mike said earlier, we're looking at the radio discussions, who had those discussions, the idea of a bargain that is completely off limits in our view. But that bargain never -- we don't believe that bargain ever happened, and we don't believe anything happened, other than the discussions about it, and that's why the probation is -- we're sending we think an appropriate message there.”

So, the appropriate message is what? Don't make deals? Don't talk about deals on the radio? You didn't do anything wrong but we're going to put you on probation for "actions detrimental" anyway?

"In addition, we are organizing a mandatory meeting with drivers and owners and crew chiefs for tomorrow to hopefully address and make more clear the path going forward as it applies to the rules of racing and the ethical part of it," said Helton.

Oh goody! That will help. Because NASCAR has a longstanding reputation for being clear in stating rules, then enforcing them fairly and consistently, so this meeting should be a watershed moment in NASCAR history, should it not?

But wait, there's more!

Helton: "We've had moments in the sport where NASCAR reacting to what has evolved on the racetrack and through the teams' actions, and we make a decision that shifts that paradigm, so to speak, and that's what's happened this week in part."

NASCAR shifting the paradigm. If you say so.

So, we've got that cleared up. Now on to the Chase, right?

Not so fast there, bucko. There's more.

France: “In addition to that, we've decided that due to the totality of the events that were outside of Jeff Gordon's -- his issues, we're going to add a 13th position to the field, and Jeff Gordon will qualify for the championship this year, the Sprint Cup Championship.”

Say what? You just said Penske and Front Row didn’t actually DO anything wrong, they just talked about it. What were Gordon's "issues" that warranted adding him to the Chase?

France: “We believe in looking at all of it that there were too many things that altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified, and I have the authority to do that. We are going to do that. It is an unprecedented and extraordinary thing, but it's also an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in multiple different ways on Saturday night, and we believe this was the right outcome to protect the integrity, which is our number one goal of NASCAR.”

Really? Do tell. Too many things altered the event? What things would those be?

France: “Well, it wasn't one set of circumstances that led us to this decision. It's a multiple set of circumstances that any one of them could have altered and given him a disadvantage. But cumulatively they were just overwhelmingly, in our view, in such a way that that just wasn't fair. We needed to try to see if there was a way that -- we can't go back and run the event again, but we also are trying to be as fair and equitable as we can with all the teams. And this is an example of that.”

Are you serious? Let me see if I've got this straight.

At Richmond, Clint Bowyer spun out, bunching up the field, sending teams to pit road and changing the outcome of the race. On Monday NASCAR said they can’t prove he spun intentionally, so that means the caution has to be treated as any late-race caution during the season.
Verdict: Not guilty

Brian Vickers pitted because Ty Norris told him to, so Truex could get another point. That manipulated the outcome of the race, costing Newman the win and a wild-card berth.
Verdict: Guilty as charged
Sentence: Fines, suspension, points deduction for all three MWR teams resulting in Truex Jr. out of the Chase, Newman in.

The No. 38 team was heard discussing a deal for driver Gilliland to help the No. 22 team get in the Chase, but NASCAR couldn’t determine that really happened so there were no accompanying points penalties, therefore no drivers should have been impacted.
Verdict: Not guilty
Restitution: Gordon is added as a 13th car in the Chase rather than Truex, who did nothing wrong and was the next eligible driver for the Chase because he was not only in the top 20, but had a win.

That makes perfect sense. And by perfect sense, I mean very little sense at all.

In the Monday press conference, Helton said: “We don't react to the ripple effect of an occurrence because I don't think there's any way we can reasonably do that.”

By Friday afternoon, that statement morphed to France’s assertion “that there were just too many things that went on Saturday night that gave a clear disadvantage and we deemed unfair to the 24 that we needed to address that.”

What things? How did the "deal or no deal" between Penske and Front Row change anything involving Gordon?

France: "Well, in respect to Gordon, Jeff Gordon being -- that wasn't a result of just our findings with the Michael Waltrip incident, or rather the 38 and the 22; it was a cumulative set of circumstances that we determined the right thing to do would be to put him into the Chase."

Out of that "set of circumstances," the ONLY action for which there was enough evidence to issue a penalty was the pit stop by the No. 55 team.

It would have made sense if NASCAR said: "You remember we said we can't respond to the ripple effects from actions detrimental? We were wrong. We think that the whole confluence of events stank to high heaven and it cost Jeff Gordon his last chance to earn a berth in the Chase so we're going to let him in anyway."

But instead NASCAR determined that "circumstances" put Gordon at a "disadvantage" so the "right thing to do" would be to let him in the Chase.

This is the same NASCAR that suspended team owner Joe Gibbs for six races for having an underweight part in an engine supplied by an outside entity, an engine neither he nor any member of his team was allowed to open to even check to see if there were underweight parts. How was that not a "disadvantage?"

Since France has executive privilege and can mitigate situations, you'd think he'd have done so in that situation where clearly the No. 20 team had no control over the infraction. But he didn't.

Why change now?

Only now, when one of the sport's superstars didn't make the "playoffs" amid a cloud of controversy, when one of the largest fan bases in NASCAR loudly voices displeasure on social media and generates petitions on behalf of their driver, does France exercise that ability.

In one way, this really isn't about Jeff Gordon. It could be any driver in the same situation and I'd feel the same way.

Yet in another way, it is about Gordon.

What if that driver had been someone other than Jeff Gordon? Someone other than a Hendrick driver?

Would Brian France have bent the rules for say...Greg Biffle? (The Biff earned his way into the Chase, in case you didn't hear.)

What about David Gilliland?

I hate to say this but I seriously doubt that if Gilliland, or David Reutimann or even David Ragan, were in same position as Jeff Gordon was following the race at Richmond, that NASCAR would have shown the same consideration about the "totality of the events."

That's my opinion. What's yours?
An unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances: changing the NASCAR paradigm An unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances: changing the NASCAR paradigm Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Saturday, September 14, 2013 Rating: 5