NASCAR added Jeff Gordon to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field today, a stunning and unprecedented step in the fallout from at least two attempts to manipulate the results at the season-ending race at Richmond last weekend.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said he had the authority to expand the field to 13 drivers for the first time since the format was implemented 10 years ago.
Front Row Motorsports asked for a deal from Penske Racing in the closing laps of at Richmond and then helped make sure Penske’s Joey Logano made the Chase field by having one of its drivers, David Gilliland, slow down, according to an Associated Press review of radio communications.
France said NASCAR could not determine there was a bargain between Front Row and Penske, but still believed the move was necessary to protect the “integrity” of the series. He said both teams had been placed on probation for the rest of the season.
“Too many things altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team,” France said. “More than anything it’s just the right thing to do. There were just too many things that went on Saturday night.”
Gordon, the four-time champion, now joins Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the Chase.
“Wow we just gained 1250 points!” Gordon tweeted shortly after the announcement. “Very appreciative of (at)NASCAR consideration on this matter as well as fans overwhelming support.”
Owner Rick Hendrick agreed.
“I applaud NASCAR for taking the time for a full review,” he said. “We’re extremely proud to have all four cars in the Chase for the second consecutive season. Jeff and the No. 24 team earned this spot.”
Trading favors on and off the track is common in NASCAR, but the series is already trying to rebound from the embarrassment of another team manipulating the outcome at Richmond. Earlier this week, NASCAR punished Michael Waltrip Racing and three of its drivers for shenanigans over the final seven laps and pulled one of them, Martin Truex Jr., out of the Chase field in favor of Ryan Newman.
The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. NASCAR will hold a mandatory team and driver meeting Saturday to clarify “the rules of the road” moving forward. France would not specify what won’t be tolerated going forward.
Newman was on his way to a victory at Richmond that would have given him the final spot in the Chase field when Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a caution. That set in motion a chain of events that cost Newman the win and the Chase berth. It also cost Gordon a Chase berth and put Truex and Logano into the final two spots.
NASCAR reacted by replacing Truex with Newman in the Chase field and hitting MWR with a $300,000 fine. It suspended general manager Ty Norris indefinitely, while MWR teammates Bowyer, Truex and Brian Vickers were docked 50 points each, and their crew chiefs were placed on probation through the end of the year.
Bowyer has denied the spin was deliberate. NASCAR could only prove one action — radio communication between Norris and Vickers in which a confused Vickers was told to pit as the field went green with three laps to go. The call was an effort to give Logano position on the track to pass Gordon in the standings and knock Gordon out of the Chase so that Truex could gain a wild-card berth.
Bowyer wasn’t really penalized — NASCAR said it couldn’t prove his spin was intentional — and his 50 points were deducted before seeding for the Chase. Gordon said he felt that Bowyer also deserved to be punished for giving up late track position, just as Vickers did, and he called NASCAR’s penalties “half right.”
And now he’s in the Chase with Bowyer — but only after the second controversy.
A review of Logano’s team radio reveals no communications indicating any discussions with Front Row. Logano is told only right before the final restart that he’s racing three cars for position, one of which is Gilliland.
Penske and Front Row are both Ford teams and considered partners, and statistics analyzed by AP also show that after Logano passed him, Gilliland’s lap times dropped off by almost 1 second from the times he was running prior to the radio exchange.
The radio exchanges for Front Row were certainly suggestive.
Gilliland’s spotter tells his crew that Logano’s team wanted Gilliland’s spot on the track “and they said they’d probably be able to help us in the future,” according to the review.
“You tell that spotter up there it better pay big,” replies someone believed to be Gilliland crew chief Frank Kerr.
“Yeah, it’s not the spotter, it’s the whole committee,” the spotter says.
“The committee knows what I’ve been asking for,” Kerr says.
“We’ve got the big dog and all of his cronies,” the spotter replies, a possible reference to Roger Penske, who watches NASCAR races from the spotter stand.
Kerr then says: “Travis knows what I’ve been asking for,” an apparent reference to Penske Racing competition director Travis Geisler.
A short time later, Logano passed Gilliland on a restart and finished 22nd — one spot ahead of Gilliland and good enough for a Chase berth.
“Good job, good job, man,” the spotter says. “Hopefully we’ll get something out of that.”
Front Row spokesman Jeff Dennison has said the team did not heed a Penske request to give Logano track position before the final restart. Penkse team President Tim Cindric told SiriusXM “there was no conspiracy, there was no bribe” and that Penske was not involved.