CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — 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 night’s race, potentially costing both Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon spots in the Chase, to benefit MWR driver Martin Truex Jr.
NASCAR President Mike Helton told The Associated Press before Sunday’s Truck Series race at Iowa that officials in the scoring tower did not immediately see anything to believe Bowyer’s spin with seven laps remaining at Richmond was suspicious. The spin came while Newman was leading and brought out the caution that set in motion a chain of events that cost Newman both the race 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.”
But an ESPN replay that included communication between Bowyer and his team implied the spin was deliberate. Bowyer was shown the video after the race and denied he spun intentionally, a claim he repeated throughout the post-race activities.
“We had a flat tire or something. It just snapped around,” Bowyer said, later adding, “I know it’s a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don’t look too much into it.”
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.
NASCAR did not have access to that footage until well after the race, and it is presumably among the materials Helton was reviewing Sunday.
Also, it became apparent early Sunday morning that Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers further aided Truex by taking a dive over the final three laps.
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 finishing 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 both Bowyer and Vickers on Sunday, and Vickers was told by MWR general manager Ty Norris to pit because “we need that 1 point.”
“We’re probably going to pit here on green,” Norris says.
“Are you talking to me?” a surprised Vickers asks.
Vickers continued to question the call, at one point asking, “I don’t understand, pit right now?”
“You’ve got to pit this time. We need that 1 point,” Norris replies.
“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’s radio communication was not as verbose, but he had already pitted twice after his spin, once to change the tire and once for Pattie to double-check for any 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, especially since it cost both Gordon and Newman spots in the 10-race Chase that begins Sunday at Chicago.
Waltrip, calling the Truck race Sunday at Iowa for Fox Sports 1, declined to comment to AP.
Gordon posted on Twitter that he felt bad for both himself and Newman.
“Was feeling pretty bad about missing the #Chase but after seeing all the details coming out now I feel even worse for @RyanNewman39,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Newman downplayed the significance of Bowyer’s spin on Saturday night because he said he still had a chance to win the race if his pit crew had delivered after the caution.
“They are teammates. I don’t know if (Bowyer) looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading, it doesn’t matter,” Newman said. “If that was the case, I’ll find out one way or the other. At the same time, we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn’t.”
AP Sports Writer Luke Meredith in Newton, Iowa contributed to this report.