Clint Bowyer was cruising in the Pepsi Max 400. Victory was his, and with it repudiation of all of the claims that he was a cheater, that he'd bulldogged his way into the Chase and into a win at Loudon by less-than-legit means. He'd led 40 laps, the most of any Chaser and just one less than Mark Martin. And then, with less than 20 laps to go, he heard those dreaded words:
"Caution. Debris on the track."
Just like that, his huge lead over the rest of the field was gone, and he'd have to restart right along with everyone else. And although he did manage to fight his way back up almost to the front, finally finishing in second, he was livid, both on the radio and in postrace interviews. On the podium with Jimmie Johnson, the following exchange took place:
Q: Clint, I don't know whether you addressed this or not, but it seems like every week your car gets taken back to Concord. You're leading the race and they throw a debris caution. Not saying there's a conspiracy theory, but is there a point being made there in your opinion?
CLINT BOWYER: That's a good question.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Have fun with that one.
CLINT BOWYER: No comment.
But Bowyer didn't stop at his "no comment." When pressed on his contention that the "mystery caution" was for debris that had been on the track for quite some time, he offered this reply: "I saw it for a long time ... You know, I mean, hell, it's part of it. What do you say? You know, I got one from Tony Stewart when he ran out of gas, and I felt like we had that race won until the caution came out, and he got one."
This is exactly the kind of PR debacle that NASCAR didn't need. Not only does it play into the perception that the races are fixed, or at least manipulated, it feeds the conspiracy theories that hold NASCAR wants Jimmie Johnson to win another championship. (Never mind that such theories have absolutely no basis in fact and make zero sense; perception is reality.)
There's another side to this, of course; it's entirely possible that while the debris was present on the track, it didn't become a problem until just before NASCAR threw the flag. But such a rationalization pales in the face of unshakeable belief that NASCAR is doing whatever it can to create and perpetuate the storylines it prefers ... and punish anyone who strays off script.