Jeff Gordon’s fans were elated. Perhaps even vindicated.
But this week’s unprecedented series of rulings by NASCAR officials left plenty of other passionate racing fans scratching their heads about the series’ reaction to widespread suspicions that teams attempted to manipulate the results of last Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
The unorthodox nature of NASCAR’s rulings — officials essentially added an extra playoff spot, to Gordon’s benefit, two days before the playoffs started — left some questioning the sport’s integrity.
“Would the NHL or NFL add an extra playoff team if they reviewed a last regular season game and found the team that was shut out of the playoffs got robbed on a bad call? Or even a controversial one?” Nathan Truninger, 27, of Davenport, Iowa, told USA TODAY Sports via Twitter. “The answer is flat out, no!”
Some fans cited last year’s infamous “Fail Mary,” when a replacement official’s blown call on a last-second play gave the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks a victory over the Green Bay Packers. The call was widely scrutinized, and ultimately led to the NFL settling a labor dispute with its regular officials — but the result wasn’t retroactively overturned.
“NASCAR took a step away from having a ‘sport culture,’ ” Zack Miller, 19, of Hudson, Fla, told USA TODAY Sports via Twitter. “Look at the NFL. The Packers didn’t get the fair result. Everyone knew that wasn’t a touchdown, yet Seahawks won, Packers lost, and it was concerned an officiating error. NASCAR, by taking (these) actions, has stepped into the way of competition.”
Speaking at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday, NASCAR officials tried to make the case that their decisions represented a step forward for the sport’s credibility — not a step back. In a closed-door meeting with drivers and team executives, officials attempted to better define what is and isn’t acceptable on the track.
“Circumstances happen that are unhelpful in the credibility category, there’s no doubt about that,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said after the meeting. “And you go back to what you’re about, and what we’re about is the best racing in the world with the best drivers giving 100 percent of their ability.”
It all started in the wake of suspicions that something fishy — perhaps several things — happened at Richmond last Saturday, the final race to set the field for the 10-race Chase.
Earlier this week, NASCAR reacted to suspicions that Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out and Brian Vickers unnecessarily pitted under green to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. get a better finish by throwing Truex out of the Chase and replacing him with Ryan Newman — the driver whose chances were hurt most by the Michael Waltrip Racing teammates’ actions. MWR was subject to other penalties as well, although Bowyer remains eligible for the Chase.
Later in the week, suspicions surfaced that two teams, Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing, may have conspired to help Penske driver Joey Logano qualify for the Chase.
So officials announced Friday that Gordon, who initially was left out of the Chase, would be retroactively added to the field as the 13th driver in what is supposed to be a 12-driver field.
“If we would live in a Twitter-less world today, would Jeff Gordon have been added to the Chase?” Chris Siebold, 23, of Poneto, Ind., told USA TODAY Sports via Twitter.
NASCAR is proud of its efforts to listen to fans in social media — so much so that it built a high-tech Fan and Media Engagement Center, which currently is being featured in a television commercial. Social media is a particularly important outlet for NASCAR fans, who don’t have a local sports-talk radio station to vent to like fans of other sports.
“Would any of these decisions have been made if this had not occurred in the era of Twitter and social media? Difficult to say,” Wes Stull, 35, of Frederick, Md., told USA TODAY Sports via email. “However, being the owner of an internet marketing company, some of the most successful brands I see are the ones who monitor their social media feedback and take action accordingly.”
And while some saw NASCAR abruptly adding a driver to the Chase field as a sign that the sport had lost integrity, Stull saw it as a step toward maintaining integrity.
“NASCAR did the best thing it could have done – it did the right thing,” Stull said. “People are talking about the integrity of the sport being challenged because NASCAR is ‘making up rules as they go’ and by allowing 13 drivers in the Chase as opposed to 12. Leaving the Richmond incident alone would have left the sport in a much worse position.”
Stull said NASCAR did the right thing by adding Gordon — and one that might help them gain attention and viewership at a time when football tends to dominate the sports landscape.
“Most people enjoy seeing others succeed because of their hard work – and most people do not like to see cheating rewarded,” Stull said. “In terms of a business decision, Jeff Gordon is still one of NASCAR’s most recognizable and popular drivers. With him in the Chase, NASCAR has expanded their viewing audience at their most important part of the season.
“In addition to all of the publicity regarding the manipulation of the Richmond race already, NASCAR has many eyeballs on the sport that it normally would not have. When it comes to promoting a sport, the old adage of ‘any pub is good pub’ comes to mind.”