Martin Truex has some good friends in low places
If nothing else, Saturday night's race in Richmond proved what observers have known for a long time; NASCAR is a team sport. Only one person climbs behind the wheel and that person gets much of the glory when things go well. But like a quarterback thanking his offensive line, the race-winning driver usually thanks his pit crew and team for providing him with a fast car and fast stops. The last ten laps at Richmond showed another aspect of NASCAR's teamwork. Was Bowyer's spin intentional? Did Vickers slam on the brakes that last lap? We'll never know. But even if both were on purpose, so what?
Here's how the story laid out. Clint Bowyer's spin with a handful of laps to go put the field under caution and sent all of the lead lap cars into the pits. Newman, who'd led the race at the time of the caution, fell back several spots thanks to a poor performance by his pit crew. The race to the finish was exciting- with Brian Vickers (a Michael Waltrip Racing driver, like Martin Truex Jr. and Bowyer) an exception as he ran his final lap nearly 40 miles per hour off the pace. Meanwhile, Bowyer pulled into pit road at the very end, falling further down the final standings. With Newman not winning and Joey Logano getting back on the lead lap, the wild card standings shifted once again. Gordon fell out of the top ten and Logano got in. That freed up a second wild card slot which (not coincidentally) went to Bowyer and Vickers' teammate, Truex Jr.
Suspicion immediately landed on Bowyer for the spin. The in-car communications between Bowyer and his crew chief Brian Pattie were suspicious at best. Pattie informs Bowyer that Newman is pulling away in the lead and immediately thereafter asks about Bowyer's arm. With the radio communications being available to anyone with a receiver, teams clearly have codes for some of what they say. They won't radio, “Crash the car, Truex needs the help.” Clearly, anything along those lines risks NASCAR's wrath for actions detrimental to stock car racing- and a severe point penalty. Instead, teams in that position would have a code for that kind of scenario. They'd be incredibly stupid not to.
Watch Bowyer's in-car communications before spin
So let's be honest with ourselves and admit that Bowyer and Vickers did what was necessary to give their teammate a chance to make NASCAR's playoffs. Having admitted that, let's also admit something else; there is nothing wrong with what either driver did.
The very presence of multi-car teams in auto racing makes incidents like these bound to happen. Two years ago, Paul Menard spun out at Richmond under similarly suspicious circumstances. The spin ended Jeff Gordon's run at the front of the race and gave Menard teammate Kevin Harvick the chance to ultimately win the race. Look at the restrictor-plate races prior to the Gen 6 car; teammates pushed each other around all day long knowing that only one car could win the race. Despite being mired in a long winless streak, Dale Earnhardt Jr. willingly pushed Jimmie Johnson to a victory in the Fall 2011 race. In both cases, drivers put their own success to the side for the betterment of the team.
Ryan Newman's post-race interview in Richmond was telling in both what he said and what he did not. Reporters asked if he was upset with Bowyer for the spin. He brushed off the question and essentially laid the blame at the foot of his team for the loss. He specifically called out his pit crew. Inwardly, it's likely Newman wished he had the kind of teammates who'd do for him what Bowyer and Vickers did for Truex. Instead, he had Danica Patrick (who finished four laps down in 30th, and thusly could do nothing to help Newman at the end) and Mark Martin. Martin, it should be noted, finished in ninth place. He made no effort to hold up Truex at the end and it was Truex that Newman was ultimately racing for that final playoff spot.
Those upset with Saturday night's events claim that Bowyer and Vickers took a dive, that they forfeited their own chances to win a race- and that doing so is contrary to the very spirit of racing. Yet is that really the case? Vickers never got into the Top 18 over the course of the race so clearly he wasn't in any position to win. Bowyer might have been at one point, but by the time of his spin he was deep in the field with too few laps and too little car to win the race. Had he finished the race where he was, Bowyer would have clinched the regular-season points lead but to what effect? The Chase-mandated points reset would render that lead irrelevant as soon as the race ended. So neither driver cost themselves the race and neither cost themselves anything in terms of points position.
Moreover, the goal for any Sprint Cup team is to race for a Sprint Cup championship. Doing that requires many different things but the foremost is speed. Fast cars come from having the resources necessary both in research and in materials- and making the Chase means millions in additional dollars for a race team. Martin Truex Jr. making the Chase is good for Michael Waltrip Racing and anything good for MWR is going to be good for Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers. Bowyer will benefit directly this year and Vickers just signed a long term contract for the team so he'll have years to enjoy those extra dollars. If they're willing to do Truex the favor then what's the issue?
One school of thought is that by rolling over to help Truex, the MWR drivers are pushing NASCAR one step away from being professional wrestling. Yet there's a big difference between teammates helping each other and WWE-style predetermined outcomes. For NASCAR to become the WWE you'd need Brian France to call the drivers in from every team. They'd discuss various ways to heighten drama over the course of the race and agree on an outcome that would maximize fan interest in the product. If NASCAR predetermined the race do you think they would have scheduled 340 laps of mind-numbing racing leading into the last 60? On a smaller scale, why would Bowyer lead laps and compete during those 340 laps? No, he'd pull into the garage with a “vibration” 20 laps in and save everyone the trouble.
What they did is more akin to taking a charge in basketball. A player steps in front of an onrushing opponent and essentially allows himself to be run over, resulting in the foul call that reverses possession. Taking a charge certainly doesn't do any good for the individual player in question- particularly given the size and athleticism of many NBA players. But it's a necessary evil that benefits the team as a whole.
NASCAR fans view their sport through the prism of individual results. They hail their favorites and boo their rivals. The current NASCAR marketing campaign utilizes that very perception with several drivers talking about what having a rival means. But the drivers are merely the tip of the spear in stock car racing. Without question they are important both for performance and for being the public face of a team. But a team member they remain. They are members both of a race team (with its pit crew, chief, and shop employees) and of a race organization (the other race teams back at the shop).
So while it's easy to criticism Bowyer or Vickers for Richmond, that anger is misplaced. At the end of the race, Martin Truex Jr. had some good friends in low places and those friends helped him make the Chase. Newman and Gordon lacked the same kinds of friends and it cost them their own chance to make the playoffs. Helping out the team may not be the most popular thing but when it comes to Michael Waltrip Racing, it was absolutely the right thing to do.