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NASCAR to meet with drivers, lay ground rules

September 13, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

NASCAR to meet with drivers, lay ground rules
Meeting comes on the heels of decision to add 13th car to Chase in Jeff Gordon's No. 24

JOLIET, Ill. -- For the second time in five days, NASCAR has changed the makeup of the Chase for the Sprint Cup due to manipulation of the sport’s regular-season finale. Saturday, officials will hold a meeting with drivers, owners, and crew chiefs with the goal of never having to alter the playoff again.

In an unprecedented move Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR chairman Brian France announced that by his personal authority, Jeff Gordon would be added as a 13th driver in this year’s Chase. It was the latest development in a saga that began with historic fines levied against Michael Waltrip Racing, which in NASCAR’s eyes manipulated Saturday night’s race at Richmond to help MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. claim the second Wild Card.

A 50-point deduction to MWR drivers Truex, Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer -- applied before the standings were reset for the playoff -- knocked Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, who appeared en route to winning at Richmond before Bowyer spun with seven laps remaining to change the complexion of the event. In more recent days, NASCAR examined radio communications between David Gilliland and Joey Logano, the Penske Racing driver who claimed the final Chase berth based on standings by one point over Gordon.

Now, Gordon will join the championship hunt as well, while Penske and Gilliland’s Front Row Motorsports team were placed on probation. It was a “multiple set of circumstances” that worked against the driver of the No. 24 car a week ago, France said, and led NASCAR to make a stunning addition to a playoff that’s consisted of 12 drivers each year since it was expanded from 10 in 2007.

It’s all leading NASCAR to call a mandatory meeting of drivers, owners and crew chiefs for early Saturday afternoon at Chicagoland “to hopefully to address and make more clear the path going forward as it applies to the rules of racing and the ethical part of it,” according to NASCAR President Mike Helton. Gordon, for one, is looking forward to it.

“I’m excited for this meeting tomorrow. I am. Even though I think we're going to get reprimanded a little bit, because it doesn't all lie on NASCAR. We all have a responsibility in this. But we are fierce competitors. I don't think a fierce competitor can ever be torn down by trying to do everything they possibly can to win a race, to be in a championship battle, to win the championship and in some ways even to help out their teammates who helped them get to that point. That is what you've got to understand,” Gordon said.

“So because of that competitive drive, it pushes us sometimes to do things that even we question. I think that through all of this I think that, yes, the integrity of the sport has been put at question. I think we have one of the greatest sports that exists. To see our integrity get questioned is very upsetting to me, and I think we, along with NASCAR, have to solve this. I'm glad that we are going to get this opportunity to do this. I wish it had not happened under these circumstances. I really do wish we could have come to this conclusion sooner, but sometimes that's just not the case.”

Teammates have always helped one another on the race track, abiding by a set of unspoken and undefined guidelines that have produced long-accepted tactics like allowing a driver to get a lap back, or allowing a driver to lead a lap to collect a bonus point. But with the championship field at stake, those actions become magnified -- which was certainly the case at Richmond, where Bowyer spun suspiciously on his own and Vickers pitted unexpectedly on the final restart, opening the door for Truex to collect a Chase berth.

Penske and Front Row have a manufacturer, Ford, in common. After penalties levied against MWR Monday night, and Friday’s actions that once again modified the Chase picture, NASCAR officials felt it was time to set everyone down and perhaps create a more concrete set of ground rules.

“We're going to have as much clarity to where the line is, and obviously we drew a line Monday night with the penalties with Michael Waltrip Racing,” France said. “So obviously what we're going to do is … no matter what it takes, the integrity of the sport will never be in question. And that's what we're going to make sure, that we have the right rules going forward that are clear so that the integrity of the competitive landscape of the events are not altered in a way or manipulated. And that will be what we will be addressing.”

The meeting will be part of a process that will entail “clarifying in a significant way the rules of racing and the rules of the road going forward,” France added. He said the sanctioning body wants suggestions from competitors on how to do that.

“We owe it to the drivers, and we also want to get obviously input,” France said. “We will be explaining it to them and the crew chiefs and others before we'll address that, but we certainly will address that. There are lines. They will be much clearer coming out of tomorrow than they are today. But listen, the most important thing is the integrity of the event, and we'll deal with that.”

Carl Edwards believes it can be productive.

“That will be really good, I think, to have a meeting. … Actually, I even herd them say they were going to listen to some input, so that will be really neat,” he said. “That’s a big deal for Mike Helton and Brian France to put it out there and say they care this much about the integrity of the event. Because at the end of the day, that’s all we can hope for is to go out there and race in an event where the best man wins.”

Some drivers expect competitors to be taken to task. “I’m sure they’ll tell us what we can and can’t do,” Joey Logano said. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is bracing for something similar.

“I’m sure a lot of threats and things along side of that side of life,” he said when asked what he expected. “But I just don’t know, to be honest with you. This is something I’ve never seen or been a part of in my career. And to watch the sanctioning body react and respond, and how they’re going to police in the future -- this is all new territory. So this is going to be a start of the process, and as the weeks come and the months come following it, we’ll continue to evolve the changes that are going to be put in place and continue to do a better job policing it.”

Johnson plans on doing more listening than talking, unless NASCAR solicits his opinion. “I’m just going to sit back and watch to see what happens,” he said. “There are lot of voices and a lot of peoples’ opinions and reactions right now. If my phone rings and NASCAR wants my opinion, I’m more than willing to give it. But I’m not going to go marching up in there with ideas anymore.”

Kasey Kahne questioned why the meeting was even necessary, given the clear chain of events in his mind that led to Gordon’s addition to the Chase on Friday.

“I feel like I have plenty of clarity. I feel like I know what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult,” Kahne said. “I think we all know where it started at Richmond. And I don’t understand all the rest. But I feel like I have plenty of clarity. I’m going to go tomorrow and sit in and make sure what I’m thinking is correct, but I don’t think I’m missing too much right now.”

Although adding an extra driver to the Chase is unprecedented in the event’s 10-year history, Helton said NASCAR has adjusted in the face of such issues before. He pointed to the practice of racing back to the yellow flag, which was eliminated in the wake of an race at New Hampshire in 2003 when Casey Mears nearly T-boned the disabled car of Dale Jarrett.

“We've had moments in the sport where NASCAR is reacting to what has evolved on the race track and through the teams' actions, and we make a decision that shifts that paradigm, so to speak, and that's what's happened this week in part. … Some of you will remember we used to race back to the flag, and we didn't. We stopped that. And when we decided that what was acceptable was no longer acceptable, it changed the paradigm,” Helton said.

“So that's kind of the moment we're in, that we'll address with the teams and the media and the fans, as to what this shift means. As it comes to officiating, that goes along with it. So whatever our decision is on how that changes for the playing field for the teams, we'll have to shift our officiating with it.  And as we talked on Monday night, what technologies and what we can use going forward to be more fair and precise and informed about what happens on the racetrack to use in order to regulate the sport, we'll chase that, as well.”

First, though, comes Saturday’s meeting -- even if reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski would rather be doing something else.

“I am not looking forward to any of it,” Keselowski said. “Do you want to go in my place? You can have the inside source and I can get a nap.”

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