Drivers come to grips with change to Chase
September 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
JOLIET, Ill. -- Martin Truex Jr. could only shake his head.
“I’m not even sure what to say at this point, to be honest with you,” the Michael Waltrip Racing driver said after qualifying Friday at Chicagoland Speedway. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. They kick me out to make a spot for somebody, and they don’t do the same for the other guys. It’s just unfair. Nothing I can do about it.”
Last Saturday night in Richmond, Truex was one of the 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Monday, he was ousted in favor of Ryan Newman because of penalties NASCAR levied against MWR for attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race. Friday, he could only watch as chairman Brian France took the unprecedented step of adding Jeff Gordon to the playoff as a 13th driver.
The move sent shock waves through the garage area, producing a range of emotions -- from Truex’s downhearted disbelief, to happiness for Gordon, to surprise and perplexity over another contender being suddenly added to the championship mix.
“It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me,” said Roush Fenway driver Greg Biffle, the seventh seed in the playoff. “I understand the fact that the outcome was changed because of circumstances during the event, and I agree that there should be some compensation made for that, but I still haven’t quite had enough time to digest how we got an extra one.”
The road to that development began when Clint Bowyer spun suspiciously on his own with seven laps remaining at Richmond in a race Newman seemed en route to winning. Bowyer’s spin, along with a surprise decision by Brian Vickers to pit on the final restart, allowed Carl Edwards to win the race and Truex to secure the final Wild Card in a tiebreaker over Newman -- who would have taken that spot himself with a victory.
In addition, the moves by Bowyer and Vickers also helped Joey Logano make up two positions on the final lap and edge Gordon by two points for the final playoff spot determined by the standings. Two days later NASCAR ruled MWR had manipulated the outcome, and subsequent penalties knocked Truex out and put Newman in. After suspicious radio communications emerged this week involving Logano’s Penske Racing team and Ford stable mate David Gilliland of Front Row Motorsports, France took the extraordinary step of overruling the rule book and adding Gordon as a 13th driver to the Chase.
“Of course, I’m very happy that Jeff is in the Chase. In my opinion, though, I think there should be 12 cars,” said five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “One in, one out should be the deal. It’s not. But there are a lot of things to consider and look at. It’s been an interesting week, to say the least -- the conversations I’ve had, the things I’ve seen, read, speculation, truth. Truth lies somewhere in the middle of all this we keep talking about. But very happy for the 24 (car) to be in the Chase now.”
Another Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, seemed nonplussed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think NASCAR ended it. I don’t even want to talk about this anymore, because I’ve been kind of confused all week.”
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who didn’t qualify for the playoff, just chuckled at the news. “I am not shocked,” the Penske Racing driver said. “I don’t know if that is good or bad that I am not shocked, but at some point you expect the unexpected.”
Johnson said some could argue the apparent disparity in penalties between MWR and Penske for their actions at Richmond -- the former had each of its drivers docked 50 points and was hit with a record $300,000 fine, while the latter was put on probation -- but from a competitive standpoint, he’s more concerned about having 13 drivers in the Chase.
“Through all this, we’re all just looking for consistency. And I think there’s probably more argument in that than 13 cars in the Chase. But as a competitor, and one of the 12 in the Chase -- that was in the Chase -- you just changed the odds and the ratio tremendously by adding that 13th car,” said Johnson, the second seed in the playoff.
“I feel like Jeff should be in, so I guess the 22 (car of Logano) would be on the outside looking in if they removed one. But that’s a good team. They won the championship last year with (Keselowski). And Joey’s doing a great job and earning a lot of points. So it changes the dynamic of the Chase quite a bit to have 13 cars in there.”
Logano, the sixth seed, said his focus was on his own car -- and that he’d have to race Gordon on the track anyway, regardless of whether or not the four-time champion was in the Chase.
“It makes it one more person harder to win, yeah. It is what it is,” Logano said. “We have to worry about our own cars. We race against 43 of them every week. Just because there is one more in the Chase doesn’t change who we race against. We have to beat them all anyway. We need to win races to win the championship. Jeff is going to be in the race either way, so it doesn’t change our plan.”
It does change his Saturday schedule, given that NASCAR has called a mandatory meeting of all drivers, owners and crew chiefs to discuss teamwork tactics in the wake of the Richmond race. But Friday, the garage area was still reeling from an unprecedented move in Chase history, and the title contenders were coming to grips with the idea of an additional driver being made eligible for the title.
“Hopefully,” said fifth Chase seed Carl Edwards, “it’s one more disappointed guy at Homestead.”