The scandal has become a footnote, nothing more.
The designation “2013 Sprint Cup champion” in NASCAR’s record book will warrant no asterisk despite the furor provoked by spur-of-the-moment but lamentably corrupt team tactics in the closing laps of the final “regular-season” race at Richmond, Va., on Sept. 7.
Yes, serious ramifications will linger for a few after a storm of controversy excessively described initially as everything from a “seedy underbelly” of stock car racing to a “crisis of credibility.” But the storm has been downgraded to a swiftly passing shower.
For that, NASCAR owes a debt of gratitude to five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, both squeaky-clean competitors and neither remotely connected to the firestorm that erupted after the Federated Auto Parts 400.
With only the Advocare 500 at Phoenix on Sunday and the climactic Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday remaining, Johnson and Kenseth have compressed the Chase to a hell-bent and untainted duel toward the Homestead finish line and the championship.
Meanwhile, principals in “Spingate,” including instigators, beneficiaries and victims, have — one by one — inconspicuously retreated into championship irrelevance. That has helped give the unseemly episode a short shelf life.
The 26th and final “regular-season” race at Richmond traditionally maximizes prime-time drama on a star-spangled Saturday night because it finalizes the 12-driver lineup for the Chase. Only it didn’t.
To recap, NASCAR officials two days later cast out Martin Truex Jr., by all indications an innocent in Michael Waltrip Racing’s manipulation of the Richmond results to his benefit. (MWR received a $300,000 fine, as well.)
The sanctioning body replaced Truex with Ryan Newman, deprived a near-certain Richmond victory by MWR’s departure from ethical competition.
Officials weren’t done. On the Friday before the 10-race Chase opener at Chicagoland, they tardily added four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, also victimized by late-race events, as a 13th Chaser.
Both executive actions were rational and laudable. They helped douse the most inflammatory reactions to a clearly intentional spin by Clint Bowyer to give Waltrip teammate Truex a last-gasp chance to get into the Chase. Subsequent radio communications and baffling strategy actually provided more actual evidence of skullduggery than Bowyer’s spin.
Briefly, condensed, here is how it played out:
The Chase lineup is comprised of the top 10 points earners in the first 26 races of a 36-race season, plus wild cards for the two drivers ranked from 11 to 20 with most victories. Through 25 races, Kasey Kahne had a wild card locked up with two victories. Truex and Newman, though outside the top 10, each had one victory.
Newman took the lead from Carl Edwards with 10 laps remaining. As was clear by one recorded in-call message to Bowyer, “[No.] 39’s going to win the race.” That was followed shortly by the words, “Is your arm starting to hurt? I bet it’s getting hot in there.”
Moments later, an in-car camera shows Bowyer, having been put into the untenable position of taking the hint or not appearing to be a team player, twisting the steering wheel and skidding sideways. Out came the yellow flag, freezing the field with seven laps left.
At that point, Newman led, Truex looked bound for a top-10 finish that would become irrelevant and Jeff Gordon ran a comfortable seventh that would lift him into the top 10 in points past struggling Joey Logano, 25th and two laps behind.
But with front-runners forced to pit for fresh tires or forfeit any shot at victory, Newman entered pit road first but exited fifth and could recover to only third in the final three laps. Truex finished seventh, giving him the points edge over Newman that appeared to secure the second wild card.
Additionally, the caution had enabled Logano to make up a lap and set him up to pass enough cars, including Waltrip Racing’s Bowyer and Brian Vickers, who was told to pit on the final lap because “we [Truex] need the point.” Logano regained 10th in the standings from Gordon by a single point.
Racing has seen other questionable and inadequately disguised attempts to help a championship-contending teammate by allowing a pass, notably in Formula One. But this was the most blatant in NASCAR memory.
It could have created a dark and persistent cloud over the Chase had Bowyer, Newman or Gordon squeezed into the championship points fight or Truex generated what would have been a title challenge had he remained eligible.
However, in short order, all except Gordon became nonfactors. Logano, left in the Chase when Gordon was added, blew an engine and wound up 37th in the Chase opener. Newman had become an afterthought even before an accident saddled him with a 35th-place finish in the fourth Chase race at Kansas.
Bowyer ranged from ninth through 17th in the first six races. Truex’s next five finishes after Richmond were 18th, 10th, 15th, 19th and 22nd. That’s not the worst of it. NAPA chose not to renew its sponsorship with Michael Waltrip next year, Waltrip cut his operation from three Cup teams to two, and Truex lost a ride. (He has recently signed to replace Kurt Busch at Front Row Motorsports in 2014.)
Gordon’s first 2013 victory at Martinsville momentarily incited speculation that bad luck for Johnson and Kenseth might move him within contending range for his fifth title. But a deflating tire propelled Gordon’s No. 24 into the concrete at Texas a week ago and crushed all hope.
Johnson and Kenseth have blithely motored on with two victories apiece through eight races and, barring a disastrous finish for either at Phoenix, will create a head-to-head drama at Homestead.
And NASCAR is breathing a collective sigh of relief.