The Racing Capital
of the World
September 12, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Ryan Newman must feel like Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III” when he uttered one of the most famous movie lines in history:
“Just when I thought I was out; they pull me back in!”
But Newman’s story has an unusual twist.
2013 Brickyard 400 winner Newman, from South Bend, Ind., was poised to make the Chase the old-fashioned way – by earning it with a victory last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway and qualifying with two wins this season. He was just seven laps from accomplishing that goal before one of the most controversial and scandalous events in NASCAR history unfolded. Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer was informed over the team’s radio that Newman was about to win the race.
A Newman win would have meant MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. would be out of the Chase.
So Bowyer was quick to take the hint that he heard over the radio and spun out. Newman and the rest of the contenders pitted for tires, and Newman lost his lead off pit road. Jeff Gordon was in the final points-scoring position to advance to the Chase in 10th place before MWR General Manager Ty Norris ordered the team’s third driver, Brian Vickers, to pit when the race went green. That would be enough to force a tie in points for Truex, who would – at the time – get the Wild Card based on tiebreaker over Newman – a second-place finish in April at Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon would also be out of the Chase because he never won a race in 2013 and had to get in either by finishing in the top 10 in points or winning.
Newman sensed the fix was in afterward and thought he had been robbed of something that he earned. NASCAR officials also were suspicious of the unusual trail of events. Once NASCAR President Mike Helton and Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton reviewed the evidence, including radio communication between Norris, other MWR crewmembers and the drivers, the sanctioning body issued the biggest penalty in its history.
MWR was fined $300,000, each of the three drivers were docked 50 points on their pre-Chase total, which dropped Truex to 17th in points and returned Newman to one of the two Wild Card positions.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Gordon believes he also was robbed and couldn’t believe that Bowyer escaped relatively unscathed from the controversy. NASCAR officials said they could not confirm that Bowyer’s spin was intentional.
On Wednesday, even more scandal was uncovered when radio communication between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports and its driver David Gilliland to encourage him to “not pass” Joey Logano in the late stages of the race, leading to even more charges of manipulation. Logano ended up making the Chase by one point over Gordon, and NASCAR officials are reviewing that evidence.
All of this has become NASCAR’s version of the “Black Sox Scandal” – when eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
How ironic that this year’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” starts at Chicagoland Speedway in nearby Joliet, Ill. – about 30 miles south of the old Comiskey Park where those same “Black Sox” created one of the biggest scandals in baseball history.
Newman was left Saturday night to wonder how he got robbed. But justice prevailed Monday night with NASCAR’s decision, and Newman could finally hear the words he had waited to hear 48 hours earlier: “You’re in.”
It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions for Newman.
“I was really shocked,” Newman said when he got the news from NASCAR about the penalties. “I knew they wanted to take a stand. I could tell that because of their announcement Sunday that they were reviewing the situation. After collecting all their data and information, they made a decision, but I didn’t know what that decision was going to be.
“I don’t know if there is a right or wrong decision, but there is a stand that needed to be taken. I commend them for that. It’s tough for me. It was literally the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through in racing – to have that (Chase berth) taken away from me, in my eyes. In the end, it’s relieving, but it’s not. It’s just a tough situation.
“Obviously, the decision is great for me, and those are the cards I was dealt. I look forward to the next 10 races and the opportunity to get our Quicken Loans Chevy in Victory Lane and have a shot at the championship. In the end, I am proud NASCAR took a stand with respect to what went on Saturday night at Richmond. I know it was a tough decision to make. With that being said, myself, Matt Borland (crew chief) and this entire No. 39 team are looking forward to competing for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”
Newman has made the “Gang of 12” that will battle for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship beginning with the Geico 400 on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
In 11 starts at Chicagoland, Newman has one pole (2002), one win (2003), three top-five finishes and seven top-10s. Five of those top-10 finishes came in his last six starts at the 1.5-mile oval.
“Our goal is to win each and every one of these last 10 races – that doesn’t change,” Newman said. “I feel we have the potential to. I want to do it for myself, my team, my sponsors and everybody involved, especially given all of the things we went through and fought through to get back to where we were Saturday night and to be in a position within seven (laps) to go to race our way in. And then, after everything that has transpired the past few days from being out of the Chase to being in the Chase, these guys deserve it.
“That’s as simple as that.”
While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Newman’s home-state track, Chicagoland Speedway is the closest to his home in South Bend, Ind. It’s about 90 miles from South Bend to Joliet, giving many of Newman’s fans an easy drive from Northern Indiana.
Newman is hoping for an easy drive Sunday.
“Even though it’s a ‘cookie cutter’ racetrack, I look forward to it because of the 18-degree banking and the fact that it is kind of unique,” Newman said. “Chicago is really a big circle. It’s always a track that has been rewarding if you are good in the corners because even the back straightaway has a kink in it. You have to carry a lot of momentum there. I always say I’m a fan of the banked racetracks and this is another track I have enjoyed racing, and it’s a track that has gotten better each year we’ve gone there.”
In the last 12 races, the No. 39 team has earned 10 finishes of 15th or better, including Newman’s Brickyard 400 win from the pole at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Newman and his team also enter the Chase on a streak of two consecutive top-five finishes – fifth at Atlanta Motor Speedway and third at Richmond.
Consistency, top-five finishes and wins are what Newman and his No. 39 Quicken Loans team will need to contend for this year’s championship.
NASCAR officials were swift and decisive in rectifying the situation that originally cost Newman his spot in the Chase. It was important for NASCAR to reinforce legitimacy and integrity to the competition.
“We reviewed all that collectively, a group from NASCAR did that,” Helton said. “We invited Michael Waltrip Racing, who accepted that invitation to come to the R & D Center and sit with us to talk about from their perspective what unfolded at Richmond Saturday night, and from all of that, the conclusion is in front of you.
“This naturally is a very significant reaction from NASCAR. As multiple car owners have become a very positive integral part of our support, also comes with it, though, responsibility from NASCAR and as well the car owners, to maintain a fair and level playing field.
“We've talked about what-ifs over the years, particularly since the Chase was established, particularly with the evolution of multiple-car teams, and we've been very fortunate that we've not had any occurrences that required NASCAR to step up or step out, as we have had to.
“It's difficult. It's not an easy decision to make. Conversations about it were deep. We feel like we researched it extremely well, talked at great length with the folks from Michael Waltrip Racing to try to get to the right spot and make the correct decision, and that's what we feel like we have done.”
Helton hopes a message has been sent to the rest of the competitors to never attempt this again.
“Cars spin out. We have cautions,” Helton said. “There are a lot of things that happen on the racetrack that people speculate about why it happened or how it happened. Sometimes there's conclusive evidence. More often than not, though, you don't know exactly what happened. But the collection of all the information we collected from Saturday night led us to the team-wide reaction as opposed to an individual car.
“We hope after today it's extremely rare. We penalize to ask for it to not happen again. It's not necessarily a penalty to take it out on somebody, as it's been presented in the past. It's a message from the league or the sanctioning body saying you can't do this and expect us not to react to it.
“And that's what we're doing. I don't know how you define the surprising part of it. Everybody will make up their own decision as to the level of surprising on Saturday night and the level of surprises from how we may have reacted to it. Our responsibility is to collect the facts the best we can and make our decision based on facts that's good and sound and solid for the garage area, the fairness on the racetrack across the board, and for the future of the sport.
“But we'll all go to Chicago. We'll practice, we'll qualify, we'll race, and we'll get through this.
“As far as the credibility of the sport, NASCAR has always taken very serious its responsibility to maintain for the most part its credibility. And I say maintain for the most part, because we get the fact that that's subjective to fans and others in the industry. But that's why we're sitting here tonight explaining why we made the decisions we made, in hopes to explain why we did that and to offer up some reasonableness to our credibility.
“But I think the biggest thing is to remember it's a sport, and it's got a lot of fun attached to it. Every now and then it gets out of bounds, and we have to bring it back in order to maintain credibility.”