Richmond fallout different for all parties involved
April 22, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Cain: Gordon the only affected driver to come out ahead
Expect lots of debate, plenty of headlines and much ado as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Richmond International Raceway this week for the first time since the circuit's controversial conclusion in September's event.
Even after the checkered flag waved for the 2013 regular-season finale there, it turned out nothing was truly final yet.
Audio and video evidence analyzed by NASCAR in the hours and days following the Richmond race suggested that Michael Waltrip Racing had tried to "manipulate" the race outcome -- and in turn the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field -- to ensure both its full-time drivers, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., were in the postseason.
It was a watershed moment for the sport, and not just because of the headline-provoking controversy and aftermath. NASCAR deftly and decisively handled the situation, doling out a suspension to a Michael Waltrip Racing executive and historic fines and points penalties to the team itself.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France even made an unprecedented move to restore what he considered a fair Chase field. He removed Truex from the postseason, reinstated Ryan Newman (who was in position to qualify for the Chase if not for the MWR-influenced race outcome) and added a 13th driver, Jeff Gordon, who was also impacted by the nebulous race finishing order.
The fate of the five drivers most involved with the situation -- Truex, Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Newman and Gordon -- has been varied since their last laps at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval.
No one was more affected by the whole ordeal than Truex. Fallout from Richmond cost him a position in the postseason and cost him (and MWR) the NAPA sponsorship, which ultimately cost the driver a job at MWR.
Then after seeming to move forward and create a fresh start in 2014 by winning a front-row starting spot for the season-opening Daytona 500, the current reality for Truex is an early-season struggle driving for the single-car Furniture Row Racing team.
In 2013, Truex started the summer toasting his No. 56 MWR team in Victory Lane at Sonoma Raceway. But after being removed from the Chase, he scored only one top-five in the last 10 races (fourth in the Homestead finale) and ended up 16th in the points standings instead of challenging for the championship.
This year Truex has yet to post a single top-10. His best finish is 14th at Las Vegas. How tough has it been? After winning the outside pole at Daytona, he had to start from the rear of the field after being wrecked in the Daytona Duel 150 qualifying race. He finished last in the 500 -- completing only 30 laps before engine failure.
Truex is 28th in the standings coming into the weekend.
"I hate that I've had to go through all this crappy stuff, but all this that I've been through helps me get through a start to the season like this -- being able to keep a positive attitude and perspective, making sure the team doesn't get down and concentrates on what we've done well, not the things that have gone bad," Truex told me earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway. "All you can do is work as hard as you can and get better every single day."
His former teammate in Bowyer has had a rough go at it post-Richmond as well.
After a three-win and championship runner-up season in 2012, Bowyer went winless last year. He had posted eight top-fives and 13 top-10 finishes leading up to the 2013 Chase, but managed only a pair of top-fives in the postseason -- his best finish was third at Martinsville.
His speed this year in the No. 15 5-hour Energy Toyota has been slow by Bowyer standards. In a season when winning is everything, he has only two top-10s this year – with a best finish of eighth at Texas -- and is ranked 16th in the points standings.
Bowyer's new full-time MWR teammate Vickers -- who was told to pit unnecessarily during the Richmond race in order to secure a favorable finish for Truex -- is 13th in the current Cup standings.
He had two DNFs in the five Chase races he ran last year and a single top-10 after posting a thrilling win at New Hampshire earlier in the summer.
This year he has as many finishes of 25th or worse (three) as he does top-10s. But his fourth-place at Texas this month is the best result for any MWR driver on the season.
Despite getting a second chance at the Chase, Newman struggled to capitalize in his final 10 races at Stewart-Haas Racing before moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2014. Fresh off an emotional victory from the pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August, Newman did not score a single top-five finish during the Chase and finished 11th in the standings.
Statistically and otherwise, no one has come out of Richmond better than Gordon -- aside from good-naturedly enduring multiple light-hearted jabs from comedian Jay Mohr at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards in December.
At one point, Mohr joked there would even be a 13th month added to the calendar -- "Jeff Gordon-ary."
But it was definitely Gordon who had the last laugh.
Instead of watching the Chase from the outside, the four-time Cup champ scored four top-10s in the first five Chase races, then won at Martinsville in the seventh postseason race for his 88th career victory. He had three top-five finishes in the final 10 races after accumulating five in the previous 26 races.
Gordon led in seven of the 10 Chase races for a total of 217 laps out front -- exactly half of the 434 he led on the entire season.
And he hasn't slowed down. He leads the 2014 championship standings for the third consecutive week thanks to three top-fives and six top-10s in the first eight races. He finished a season-best second place at Texas two weeks ago and his worst finish is 13th at Auto Club Speedway.
It's exactly what Gordon said he needed to do to contend for his fifth trophy.
"For me it's about getting off to a better start, and really the last two seasons we have not gotten off to a great start," Gordon said this preseason. "That doesn't mean you've got to go and win the first five races. It just means try and eliminate the 20ths and the 25ths and try and put yourself in position to get those top-10s and hopefully turn those into top-fives or wins. Get the points, get the momentum and then run with it.
"In some ways (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and I have had conversations about maybe we've been too aggressive at the beginning of the year trying to get off to a great start and things didn't go well and we got a little bit behind on saying, 'OK, let's get back to the basics.'
"I think we're going to try to blend the basics and some of the new things that we think are going to be successful for us."
No doubt many would see a Gordon victory Saturday night at Richmond as a fitting outcome.
But it's not poetic justice he's pursuing.