Gordon Returns To Chase As 13th Driver After Unprecendented Week For NASCAR
The original “Brickyard Legend” will get to compete in NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship,” after all, as inaugural Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon was added to The Chase by NASCAR officials late Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.
The addition of four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup champion Gordon increases the Chase field to an unprecedented 13 drivers. Gordon was added to the field when NASCAR officials determined Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports were involved in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the race last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Essentially, Penske Racing tried to cut a deal with Front Row Motorsports that ordered driver David Gilliland not to pass Joey Logano. According to radio transmissions, Penske Racing “would take care of” Gilliland for cooperating.
It was the second scandal that developed out of the final “regular season” race at Richmond. NASCAR officials determined Michael Waltrip Racing had manipulated the final Chase position by having Brian Vickers pit once the race went back to green flag racing with only three laps to go. That allowed MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. to finish in a tie with 2013 Brickyard winner Ryan Newman for the final Wild Card position in the race. Truex would originally get the Wild Card based on tie-breaker (one second-place finish to none for Newman), leaving Newman out of the Chase.
When NASCAR officials reviewed the radio communication between MWR General Manager Ty Norris and Vickers, it concluded the “fix was in” and acted swiftly and decisively last Monday night, docking all three MWR drivers 70 points which knocked Truex out of the Wild Card back to 17th in the standings. That reinstated Newman to the final Wild Card position.
Norris was also suspended indefinitely, and Michael Waltrip Racing was fined $300,000.
Another MWR driver, Clint Bowyer, spun out by himself to bring out the final caution of the Richmond race, but NASCAR was unable to definitively determine that the spin was intentional to keep Newman from winning the race.
As for Gordon, he would have earned a Chase position by finishing 10th in the standings but ultimately finished one point behind Penske driver Logano for that position. When NASCAR officials determined Penske Racing and Front Row attempted to prevent Gilliland from passing Logano, they made the unprecedented decision to add Gordon as a third Wild Card entry.
“Oh, it’s been a roller coaster ride this week and an unusual set of circumstances,” Gordon said after qualifying sixth on Friday for Sunday’s Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. “I’ve never been a part of anything like this before. But for my team and my fans that that have been overwhelming supportive this week, for the tough decisions that NASCAR has to make, and for Drive to End Hunger, I’m extremely happy about this. We’re proud to be in it, and now an incredible set of opportunities lie on our shoulders to go out there and show that we belong in this Chase.”
Gordon’s emotions were far different Friday than the disappointment he experienced last Saturday at Richmond. He would later turn from disappointment to anger when he discovered what had happened with MWR and its drivers that cost him 10th in the points.
The conspiracy deepened when radio communications revealed a deal between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports.
Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing organizations have been placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31 for violating Section 12-1 (Actions detrimental to stock car racing).
“Beginning with our decision Monday, which resulted in an unprecedented team penalty, and continuing with further examination of actions involving two other race teams, it is clear to us that attempts to manipulate the results impacted the Chase field,” said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer. “The integrity of our sport remains the cornerstone of NASCAR, and our actions this week speak to our commitment to ensure a level playing field for all competitors.”
Additionally, NASCAR will conduct a mandatory meeting with drivers, owners, crew chiefs and other team personnel Saturday to address this issue moving forward.
Penske Racing issued a statement Friday evening: "Penske Racing acknowledges NASCAR's decision to place the organization on probation following the circumstances surrounding last weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Richmond. We appreciate the time and effort that NASCAR took to evaluate the circumstances while determining no deal occurred between the No. 38 and No. 22 teams. Penske Racing accepts NASCAR's decision and is now focused on a strong start to the Chase with Joey Logano and the No. 22 team."
NASCAR President Mike Helton and his team made the decision after a thorough examination of all the data it had accumulated from last Saturday night.
France said the decision to have 13 cars in this year’s Chase was the best way to ensure that every driver who was supposed to be in the field before the manipulation will have a fair shot at The Chase.
“We believe, in looking at all of it, that there were too many things that altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified, and I have the authority to do that,” France said. “We are going to do that. It is an unprecedented and extraordinary thing, but it's also an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in multiple different ways on Saturday night, and we believe this was the right outcome to protect the integrity, which is our number one goal of NASCAR.
“We will be clarifying in a significant way the rules of racing and the rules of the road going forward, and we will be looking forward to that meeting and addressing the media after that, after we meet with the teams to clarify that with certainly with the media and our fan base.
“We're going to have as much clarity to where the line is, and obviously we drew a line Monday night with the penalties with Michael Waltrip Racing. So obviously what we're going to do is we're going to protect, no matter what it takes, the integrity of the sport will never be in question, and that's what we're going to make sure, that we have the right rules going forward that are clear so that the integrity of the competitive landscape of the events are not altered in a way or manipulated. And that will be what we will be addressing.
“I think more than anything, it's just the right thing to do, more than anything. You know, as I said, there were just too many things that went on Saturday night that gave a clear disadvantage and we deemed unfair to the 24 that we needed to address that. That's why we withhold the right to in extraordinary circumstances do important things like we did today.”
France and Helton also drew comparisons and differences between the infractions that occurred with Michael Waltrip Racing and the latest scandal involving Penske Racing and Front Row.
“Well, in respect to Gordon, Jeff Gordon being -- that wasn't a result of just our findings with the Michael Waltrip incident, or rather the 38 (Gilliland) and the 22 (Logano); it was a cumulative set of circumstances that we determined the right thing to do would be to put him into the Chase,” France said. “We did not conclusively determine that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports actually did anything in terms of on the track that we can conclusively say there was a quid pro quo or altering of the event. As Mike said earlier, we're looking at the radio discussions, who had those discussions, the idea of a bargain that is completely off limits in our view. But that bargain never -- we don't believe that bargain ever happened, and we don't believe anything happened, other than the discussions about it, and that's why the probation is -- we're sending we think an appropriate message there.”
Said Helton: “We've had moments in the sport where NASCAR reacting to what has evolved on the racetrack and through the teams' actions, and we make a decision that shifts that paradigm, so to speak, and that's what's happened this week in part. As an example, it may not be a very good one, but some of you will remember we used to race back to the flag, and we didn't; we stopped that. And when we decided that what was acceptable was no longer acceptable, it changed the paradigm. So we for several weeks after that had to define what that meant. So that's kind of the moment we're in, that we'll address with the teams and the media and the fans, as to what this shift means.
“As it comes to officiating, that goes along with it. So whatever our decision is on how that changes for the playing field for the teams, we'll have to shift our officiating with it. And as we talked on Monday night, what technologies and what we can use going forward to be more fair and precise and informed about what happens on the racetrack to use in order to regulate the sport, we'll chase that, as well.”
This will go down as one of the most tumultuous weeks in NASCAR history – when the integrity and credibility of the sport came under fire but officials took swift and decisive action.
“I'll admit, it's been a rough week,” Gordon said. “It was a lot of up-and-downs of emotions for this entire team this week. They've been through a lot. They never gave up. Not only Saturday night, but this entire week, and I'm proud of that. I'm very appreciative, very thankful to be in, and I know it's under the most unbelievable circumstances I've ever been a part of in my racing career, and I wish that all of this hadn't happened. I wish that we could have just raced for it on Saturday night, but that wasn't the case.
“Now here we are as a 13th car and in. Now we just try to take that opportunity and make the most of it.”