This is not mere conspiracy theory, not just bitter-but-unfounded suspicions from Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon fans angry that they just missed out on a spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff. This is a thing that happened clear as day—a driver deliberately spun out to screw them over and give his teammate the final slot.
(Truex is out, Newman is back in. See update below.)
Saturday night's race at Richmond was the last of the regular season, with the final spots in the Chase up for grabs. Newman would have been in with a win, and he looked to be in good shape, leading with seven laps to go. On the outside looking in was Martin Truex Jr., but Truex had a secret weapon: Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, who was already assured qualification.
"Thirty-nine [Newman] is going to win the race," Bowyer's crew chief told him over the radio.
"Is your arm starting to hurt?" the crew chief asked. "I bet it's hot in there. Itch it."
Bowyer inexplicably threw the wheel and spun out.
The caution flag came out, everyone headed for the pits, and by the time the green flag waved, Newman was no longer in first.
"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."
The MWR team wasn't done. When racing resumed with three laps to go, Jeff Gordon was in a position to take the final guaranteed spot in the Chase. So Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers intentionally took their sweet-ass time, running off the pace, even pitting again to give Joey Logano a better finish—which squeezed Gordon out and gave Truex the 12th and final spot in the Chase.
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."
Gordon missed out by one point.
NASCAR issued a brief statement yesterday saying it will review the race, but there doesn't seem to be a violation here—or at least, not one that can be proven. We saw this situation last year, when Denny Hamlin pitted to give teammate Kyle Busch, in contention for the Chase, a better position. We saw it the year before when Paul Menard spun out to give teammate Kevin Harvick a chance to make up ground. (It was Jeff Gordon getting screwed then, too.)
This was MWR masterfully working within the team model ("Our business model doesn’t work without us making the Chase," Waltrip said in July.) to game the Chase formula. If you want to say the system is broken, fine. But don't pretend goosing the rules isn't the greatest stock car tradition of all.
Update, 8:05: NASCAR has booted Martin Truex out of the Chase, to be replaced with Ryan Newman.
Michael Waltrip Racing has been fined $300,000, the general manager suspended indefinitely, and Truex, Bowyer, and Vickers docked 50 points apiece. Truex misses out because of the point penalty. Bowyer remains in the Chase.