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Friday, September 13, 2013
NASCAR does the right thing

By Ed Hinton

NASCAR president Mike Helton thought his example "might not be very good," but it was perfect, for any longtime observer of the sport.

In justly giving Jeff Gordon an unprecedented 13th berth in the Chase, and in announcing that neither intra-team nor inter-team collusion will be allowed any longer -- all due to the explosion over the multifaceted Richmond chicanery Saturday -- Helton harkened back a decade, to when NASCAR up and outlawed its long-standing policy of allowing "racing back to caution."

Jeff Gordon
Championship contender Jeff Gordon on his second chance: "We have an incredible opportunity in front of us."

NASCAR on Friday did what had to be done under the chaotic circumstances, and what had to be done in this day and time, and Helton pointed out that NASCAR has done the same under different circumstances in the past.

From time to time, "We make a decision that changes the paradigm," Helton reminded reporters at Chicagoland Speedway, and a live TV audience via Fox Sports 1. "As an example, and this might not be very good, we used to race back to the flag," Helton continued. "And we stopped that.

"When we decided what was acceptable was no longer acceptable, it changed the paradigm."

And that is precisely what has transpired in NASCAR since Saturday night. The once-acceptable -- teams making deals and trying to manipulate outcomes -- is no longer acceptable.

The paradigms are such now that racing back to caution seems almost barbaric in retrospect. Even after the caution flag flew and the yellow lights came on, drivers were allowed to race all the way back around to the flag stand itself, regardless of what wreckage might lie in the way.

In another decade, team collusion won't necessarily look barbaric, but it will pass into the realm of the unthinkable.

It's all a matter of evolution of a sport, and a league's policing of that evolution so that it doesn't get out of hand in the credibility and integrity department. Times have changed and so has the American public, so what once was considered just wily won't be tolerated anymore.

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, speaking at the same news conference, had perhaps his finest moment as third-generation czar, speaking in the firm and simple language that is the legacy of his grandfather, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and Brian's father, Bill France Jr.


NASCAR has added Jeff Gordon to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but did not remove any drivers from the field. Do you approve?


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"More than anything, it's just the right thing to do," Brian said of adding Gordon to the Chase. "More than anything."

He asserted himself succinctly on the instatement of Gordon:

"I have the authority to do that, and we are going to do that," he said, almost as a reincarnation of his father's directness.

"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," France said.

He meant Clint Bowyer's enormously controversial spin with seven laps left, which robbed Ryan Newman of the win and kept him initially out of the Chase, and also kept Gordon out of the Chase.

Then there was the suspect radio traffic indicating Joey Logano's team might be colluding with David Gilliland's team, making Gordon a victim in yet another way.

So why didn't NASCAR simply toss Logano from the Chase and install Gordon, similar to the action Monday that disqualified Martin Truex Jr. and put Newman in?

"We did not conclusively determine that [Logano's] Penske Racing and [Gilliland's] Front Row Motorsports actually did anything on the track," France said, "that we can conclusively say there was a quid pro quo or altering the event ... The idea of a bargain is completely off limits, in our view. But we don't believe that bargain ever happened, or that anything happened, other than the discussions about it ..."

So NASCAR wrist-slapped the Penske and Front Row operations with probation through the end of this season. But it's hard to fault NASCAR for not bouncing Logano if the investigation didn't produce conclusive evidence.

It still sticks in my craw that Bowyer, the most active suspect in the whole Richmond affair, remains seeded eighth in the Chase, essentially unpunished. But he continues to deny spinning intentionally.

And that denial would make it hard for NASCAR to create a penalty stiff enough to take Bowyer out of the Chase entirely without facing backlashes -- in public and perhaps even in court -- from Michael Waltrip Racing and its sponsors, who might claim Bowyer was tossed without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bowyer and the 15 team will suffer, and are already suffering, the wrath of NASCAR Nation -- as documented by ESPN contributor Brant James during a fan and media day Thursday at Chicago's Navy Pier. And the booing, the heckling, the cat-calling are likely to continue all the way to the grandstands at Homestead-Miami for the season finale.

I said in a commentary Monday night that the most important thing was getting both Newman and Gordon into the Chase, where they deserve to be. If NASCAR accomplished this by adding a berth, and with a little more diplomacy than some of NASCAR Nation would have liked ... well ... NASCAR still got the job done in the arena of fairness.

All in all, good job, NASCAR. Y'all did the best you could do under the circumstances.