NASCAR’s latest crisis: what’s real on the track?

Beyond crowning a new champion, NASCAR suddenly finds itself defending its integrity as the sport begins a 10-race, title-deciding stretch at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.

NASCAR’s biggest questions from fans and sponsors: Is the drama on the track real racing? Or is it scripted like professional wrestling?

Not since Richard Petty was caught winning in Charlotte 30 years ago with an oversized engine and illegal tires has the racing organization been embroiled in a controversy this big. It started after a series of incidents in which drivers from Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the Sept. 7 race in Richmond.

The scandal leaves fans like Michael McCarey – who has been watching races since age 7 when he saw Petty win his sixth Daytona 500 in 1979 – wondering if they’ve been duped all these years.

“What happened last weekend soured me big time. I feel like I’ve been made a fool,” said McCarey, a information technology specialist from Red Lion, Pa. “It was cheating in its purest form.”

What happened at Richmond International Raceway was magnified by a huge TV audience of 5.1 million viewers and by what was at stake in NASCAR’s regular season finale. A car piloted by Waltrip team driver Clint Bowyer spun out with seven laps remaining – without contact with another car – and teammate Brian Vickers made an unneeded pit stop.

The drivers didn’t make the moves for themselves. Team officials had ordered them to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. get into the Chase, the season-ending competition among the top 12 drivers with millions of dollars at stake.

So the final laps in Richmond became critically important. The difference between the last team getting into the Chase and the first not to make it is about $3 million.

Any Chase driver has a chance to win the season championship. Last year’s champion Brad Keselowski earned a $5.7 million bonus from Sprint for winning the Chase. With his weekly winnings, he made $12.1 million for the 2012 season.

With his teammates’ help, Truex ended up making the Chase, but NASCAR effectively threw him out and fined MWR owners Waltrip and Rob Kauffman a record $300,000. In Truex’s place, driver Ryan Newman became the 12th driver in the Chase. Then on Friday, NASCAR added a 13th driver, Jeff Gordon, who’d been nudged out because of Bowyer’s spin.

Bowyer, too, remains in the Chase, despite getting docked 50 points.

On Saturday, NASCAR Chairman Brian France met with drivers and announced a series of changes aimed at restoring credibility. Among them is a ban on intentionally causing a caution flag to interrupt a race, wrecking a competitor or trading favors to benefit another driver.

It is NASCAR’s first big scandal since stock car racing’s governing body instituted its championship-deciding format 10 years ago.

“It had a lot of eyeballs on it,” said former driver Rusty Wallace, now an ESPN race analyst. “It happened in front of God and everybody.”

Now NASCAR faces more than questions from fans. The organization, which has suffered declining attendance and fan interest in recent years, must also relieve concerns among sponsors who fund the sport and its teams.

Some are rethinking their investments. NAPA Auto Parts, a MWR sponsor, said in a statement it found the incidents “very concerning.”

“We are disappointed that a partner associated with our organization would make such a significant error in judgment,” the company said. “We have launched our own review to determine the future of our partnership with Michael Waltrip’s racing team.”

‘Ain’t cheatin’, ain’t tryin’ ’

Sports is often a battle to find the fine line between gaining an edge legally and cheating.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner, had his titles stripped and ultimately was banned for life from competitive cycling after doping offenses. Baseball player Barry Bonds, a 14-time all-star and home run leader, became embroiled in a steroid scandal that many feel could keep him out of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Lately, coaches and fans of football teams with no-huddle, hurry-up offenses complain that defenders are faking injuries to slow down the game.

For decades, NASCAR operated in small southern towns away from the media spotlight; they could change rules or make judgments with little oversight and without fans knowing.

Mechanics and crew chiefs were constantly looking for an edge and often ignored rules to get it.

The late Henry “Smokey” Yunick, a legendary Daytona Beach mechanic, always insisted that if the rules didn’t say you couldn’t do it, then it wasn’t cheating.

The old racing adage stuck: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ ”

In the early days, even car manufacturers battled each other to find a winning engine, often going beyond NASCAR’s standards.

A win by a Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth was good for car sales.

Usually, today’s cheating is more discreet than the scheme played out in Richmond.

Some of the sports’ biggest cheating incidents involved manipulating engines, gas tanks and altering contours of the car’s shape – all in an effort to go faster.

“A lot of (the cheating) we never knew about,” said former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, an unofficial NASCAR historian. “It was usually the mysterious car that ran out of gas with three laps to go on the backstretch. It probably had a full tank of gas, but the caution (flag) comes out. …”

When teams didn’t have sophisticated radio equipment, they had chalkboards to signal “nefarious acts” to drivers, Wheeler said.

Former driver Darrell Waltrip once filled his car’s frame with BBs to cheat the weight test, only to pull a plug to empty the pellets once the weighing was over.

“If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you cheat and don’t get caught, you look like a hero,” Waltrip, Michael’s brother, was quoted as saying.

Last year, NASCAR suspended and fined crew chief Chad Knaus and docked driver Jimmie Johnson 25 points for illegal modifications to his car’s C-posts, contoured sheet metal stretched from the roof to the rear edges of window openings.

Yet the 25 points didn’t keep Johnson from the Chase.

Wheeler said as long as there are teams with multiple cars, races will continue to be altered.

NASCAR, he said, is doing a better job at catching cheaters with advanced technology that can police teams, and nationally televised races that keep the spotlight on every turn.

“They’re trying to change at NASCAR, and it’s a real struggle to do it,” Wheeler said. “Cheating is an inherent part of the culture these guys grew up in. Cheating can come in all sorts of different forms – a bigger gas tank or a hidden one, for instance.

“It also can come by trying to alter what is done on the racetrack, like Saturday.”

Analyst Wallace said Bowyer’s spin-out changed racing’s landscape, from the outcome of the Richmond race to NASCAR getting more serious about curtailing cheating.

“That spin was the shot heard around the world,” Wallace said.

“The whole world was watching down to the wire to see who made the Chase and who didn’t. But that spin-out changed everything.

“You and I wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for that spin-out.”

Sport at crossroad

Beyond the warnings NASCAR issued on Saturday, many fans believe NASCAR still didn’t go far enough to punish the Waltrip team and make a strong statement that altering races won’t be condoned.

Clarence Watkins, a race fan of 53 years from Charlotte, said the penalty to the Waltrip team should have more severe.

“Why not suspend a team for a year when it alters a race like that?” Watkins said. “That’d sure get their attention and the attention of all the other teams.

“Until you hurt them in the pocketbook, they’re going to just keep on with all this lousy cheating.”

Charlotte financial planner Hal Brown said the Richmond incidents “diminished” the sport, but he thought NASCAR responded appropriately.

Brown said only when teams start losing sponsors will the problem go away.

“Racing is an expensive sport,” he said. “No sponsor, no team.”

Longtime fan Wes Landrum of Huntersville emailed the Observer and said that NASCAR needs to make rules simple and enforce them consistently.

He suggested NASCAR bans big teams so there is less opportunity to collude. That, he wrote, was the “biggest contributor to the problem last weekend. Limit teams to two cars max. You don’t build your own engines, chassis, car, you don’t race. Too expensive, too bad.”

The sport, he said, is at a crossroads, and cheating scandals don’t help.

NASCAR may “never recover” from its problems, Landrum wrote. “The vested interests can deny it or rationalize it. But the fact remains: Attendance is down, viewership is down and sponsorship is down. NASCAR is badly broken.”

At the very least, many fans believe Clint Bowyer – a popular and talented driver – should have been kicked out of the Chase.

“They didn’t penalize the guy who started it all,” said Michael McCarey, the fan from Pennsylvania. “The purpose in penalizing is to deter these types of shenanigans in the future.

“If Bowyer can intentionally spin-out and alter the race, but he’s still in the Chase – how does that solve the problem?”

Drivers helping teammates, McCarey said, is “not sportsmanship – it’s theater.” Staff writer Scott Fowler contributed.

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