JOLIET, Ill. — Rick Hendrick said he’d never seen the NASCAR brass reverse an important ruling during his 30-plus years in the sport.
But NASCAR’s most successful team owner found plenty to like in the move, which restored driver Jeff Gordon to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship after he failed to qualify in last week’s scandal-plagued race at Richmond.
“I didn’t have to make that decision, but I sure felt like it was obvious that (Gordon) got taken out by a manipulation instead of getting beat,” Hendrick said Sunday. “I think the world knew it and they had to do what they did.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France made the decision to restore Gordon to the season-ending playoff, announcing it Friday along with a stern warning that the organization wouldn’t tolerate any more attempts to manipulate the outcome of races. It came at the end of a frenetic week when NASCAR’s credibility was on the line.
Officials were forced to take a second look at the results from last week’s race at Richmond once they learned Clint Bowyer deliberately spun to bring out a caution to stop leader Ryan Newman from winning. A win by Newman would have eliminated Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, from a Chase berth.
Once officials dug deeper, however, their investigation found at three separate attempts to manipulate the race. NASCAR could not prove the teams were working together, although Gordon wound up being clearly disadvantaged by the schemes, missing the final qualifying spot by one place. Gordon, a four-time champion, wasn’t eligible for either of the two wild-card spots. That prompted France to step in.
“There was one team, one driver, who was directly impacted negatively, as Brian said, by all this, and we decided that we were going to do something that was unprecedented,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said on ESPN before Sunday’s race.
Hendrick said it was the right call.
“It’s something you shoot for the whole year. … We had all four drivers in last year and we wanted to do it this year,” Hendrick said. His team had already qualified five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Everybody is happy now,” he added.
Not quite everybody.
France issued unprecedented penalties earlier in the week, fining Michael Waltrip Racing a total of $300,000 and suspending team general manager Ty Norris indefinitely. Yet cutting deals to help teammates grab points or move up in the standings has been part of NASCAR since its inception. Teams and drivers have been trying to figure out where the line between compeitition and cooperation lies, and Hendrick believes now they have an example to base their decisions on.
“I think it’s something that’s going to do us all a lot of good,” he said.
But Hendrick also acknowledged it took a long, often emotional detour to get there.
“I’ve never been to the hauler at the end of the race and had any decision reversed,” he recalled.
“That is the way it’s been for 30-plus years. I was just disgusted and left (Richmond). I didn’t hang around. I got out of there as soon as it was over because it wouldn’t have done any good.”
NASCAR also tweaked its restart rules Sunday and will now allow the second-place driver to beat the leader to the start-finish line after confusion has reigned all season.
The change was announced in the pre-race driver meeting at Chicagoland Speedway, where NASCAR has been dealing with the fallout from a manipulated race at Richmond last week. Overshadowed in the scandal was yet another restart in which many fans felt NASCAR missed a call when it failed to penalize Carl Edwards for jumping the final restart.
Edwards clearly beat leader Paul Menard to the line, wasn’t penalized and won the race. NASCAR said Menard spun his tires.
Going forward, the leader controls the start in the restart zone. But once the green flag waves, the second-place car can beat the leader to the line, allowing NASCAR to take race control out of the equation.