Jeff Gordon was added to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Friday when NASCAR chairman Brian France used his power to make an unprecedented expansion to the field after two separate investigations into radio chatter revealed numerous instances of race manipulation.
France determined Gordon did not have a fair chance to race his way into the 12-driver field last Saturday night at Richmond because of the actions of at least three organizations over the closing laps at Richmond.
The four-time NASCAR champion was bumped from eligibility by Joey Logano, who unknowingly received assistance from two Michael Waltrip Racing drivers trying to aid their teammate. Logano also picked up another track position when David Gilliland apparently moved aside when Gilliland’s team tried to bargain with Penske Racing over the radio.
“Too many things altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team,” France said. “More than anything it’s just the right thing to do. There were just too many things that went on Saturday night.”
It was a stunning conclusion to a surreal week for NASCAR, which should have been celebrating Sunday’s start of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway.
Instead, the sanctioning body has been scrambling to uncover who did what and why since Clint Bowyer spun his car with seven laps remaining at Richmond as 10 drivers jockeyed for the five available spots in the Chase.
NASCAR acted quickly in disciplining MWR on Monday night, then learned Wednesday of a second apparent problem involving Penske and Front Row Motorsports, which appeared to ask for a deal if Gilliland moved over for Logano.
Logano did get by Gilliland, who then seemed to slow down by at least 1 mph, according to an Associated Press review of radio communications and data.
France said NASCAR could not determine there was ever a deal between Front Row and Penske, but that putting Gordon in the Chase and placing Penske and Front Row on probation for the rest of the season was necessary to protect the integrity of the series.
Gordon, the four-time champion, now joins Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the Chase.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions this week. Unprecedented set of circumstances,” Gordon said. “I’m extremely happy for this. We’re proud to be in it. An incredible set of opportunities now lie on our shoulders to show we belong in the Chase.”
Gordon goes into the Chase as the 13th seed, 15 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.
Owner Rick Hendrick was pleased with the ruling.
“I applaud NASCAR for taking the time for a full review,” he said in a statement. “We’re extremely proud to have all four cars in the Chase for the second consecutive season. Jeff and the No. 24 team earned this spot.”
Johnson was happy for his teammate but not thrilled to have an additional driver to race for the title.
“I believe there should be 12 cars. One in and one out should be the deal,” he said.
Trading favors on and off the track is common in NASCAR, but the series had to investigate the Penske and Front Row bargaining allegation following the embarrassment of Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempt to manipulate the outcome of the race to benefit Martin Truex Jr. NASCAR on Monday punished the MWR organization for its shenanigans over the final seven laps and pulled Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman.
Truex, in his first comments since he was knocked out of the Chase on Monday, said it’s been a surreal week. An unwitting victim of his teammates’ efforts to help him, he lost his Chase bid after driving the last two weeks with two broken bones in his wrist and a cast on his right arm.
“All I did the last two weeks was drive my heart out,” he said Friday. “I went from feeling like I really climbed a mountain in that race at Richmond to going to be knocked out of the Chase.”
Truex wasn’t pleased with NASCAR’s decision to add Gordon to the Chase.
“I’m not even sure what to say at this point. I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Truex said. “How they make a spot for somebody — they kick me out to make a spot for somebody and then they don’t do the same for the other guys? It’s just unfair and nothing I can do about it.”
Truex is out as punishment for his teammates’ working so hard to help him get in, and NASCAR will hold a mandatory team and driver meeting Saturday to clarify “the rules of the road” moving forward. France would not specify what won’t be tolerated going forward.
“Obviously we drew a line with the penalties with Michael Waltrip Racing,” France said. “We’re going to make sure that we have the right rules going forward, so that the integrity of the competitive landscape of the events are not altered in a way or manipulated.”
The entire mess began a mere seven laps from the finish Saturday night with Newman en route to a victory that would have given him the final spot in the Chase. MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a caution and setting in motion a chain of events that cost Newman the win and a Chase berth.
It also cost Gordon a Chase berth and put Truex and Logano into the final two spots.
It later became clear that Bowyer’s spin was deliberate — although NASCAR has said it can’t prove that — and that Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers allowed Logano to gain late finishing positions to bump Gordon out of the Chase to aid Truex.
Among the penalties levied against MWR was a $300,000 fine and the indefinite suspension of general manager Ty Norris. Bowyer, Truex and Brian Vickers were docked 50 points each, and their crew chiefs were placed on probation through the end of the year.
Bowyer has denied the spin was deliberate. NASCAR could only prove one action — radio communication between Norris and Vickers in which a confused Vickers was told to pit as the field went green with three laps to go.
Once NASCAR singled out that action, a Pandora’s box was opened and the apparent bargaining between Penske and Front Row became dicey.
And Gordon’s anger began to grow. Gordon said he felt that Bowyer also deserved to be punished for giving up late track position, just as Vickers did, and he called NASCAR’s penalties “half right.”
And now he’s in the Chase with Bowyer — but only after the second controversy.