Four Wide: Equal scrutiny would settle murkiness

In all the drama of NASCAR vs. Richard Childress Racing, there’s only one issue that’s completely unclouded: RCR was absolutely right to appeal the penalties levied against Clint Bowyer and the No. 33 team.

What more does RCR have to lose at this point? Bowyer’s championship chances were squashed less than 72 hours after he clawed his way into the title picture, and barring a miracle in the NASCAR appeals process, he won’t be holding the Sprint Cup when the season concludes in nine weeks.

At New Hampshire, Clint Bowyer and Shane Wilson celebrated their first victory together.

Bowyer was crippled Wednesday by a 150-point penalty levied by NASCAR after the car he drove to victory last week in New Hampshire did not pass inspection at NASCAR’s research and development center. NASCAR also fined crew chief Shane Wilson a whopping $150,000 and suspended him and car chief Chad Haney for the next six races. Since there’s a better chance that pigs will fly over Dover International Speedway this weekend than Bowyer’s penalty being reversed through the appeals process, his only real chance to climb back in the title hunt is through good, hard racing, and he will need his crew and car chiefs to knock down the finishes he needs to do that.

It’s not clear how long their stay will be. They can continue going to the track until the National Association for Stock Car Racing hears their appeal and issues a ruling. Presumably, that will happen in the next week or so as NASCAR tries to push this sordid mess out of the headlines as quickly as possible.

But anything – even having Wilson and Haney for one more race – is better For Bowyer than having them rejoining the team in Texas, six weeks from now, when the championship may already be decided.

Appealing the NASCAR decision was the only decision for RCR.

What are the other elements and ramifications of the Bowyer penalty:

1. The notion that NASCAR made this up is preposterous:

I get that a good deal of fans don’t trust NASCAR and believe most every conspiracy theory out there when it comes to the rules and regulations. But it’s ludicrous to think NASCAR president Mike Helton and his crew haphazardly or maliciously cracked down on Bowyer because of ulterior motives.

To start, Bowyer gave them a fresh, new race-winner who, regardlessx of his popularity rankings, at least stood as a symbol of somebody other than the usual suspects. Toss in the fact that he’s extremely likeable and drives for a team that has totally turned around its fortunes this season in one of NASCAR’s feel-good stories of the year, and NASCAR would be crazy not to root for the guy to be a player in this Chase.

Then there’s the obvious desire by NASCAR to avoid this public relations disaster during its most important stretch of the season. At a time when NASCAR is trying to lure fans back to the sport, the leaders would much prefer the discussion to be on the great race at New Hampshire and what may follow at Dover – and not on an illegal race car.

Lastly, what would NASCAR possibly have to gain by messing with Bowyer for no good reason? Do people seriously believe NASCAR is going to systematically manipulate 11 teams so that Jimmie Johnson can win his fifth title? That line of thinking is so baffling, it’s impossible to comprehend that people actually believe these conspiracies.

Trust me, NASCAR wants a fabulous Chase with 12 drivers racing for the championship down to the wire. This is the very last thing anyone wanted to happen.

2. So then how did it happen?

This, unfortunately for NASCAR, is where it gets murky, and any attempt to understand this begins at Richmond, where Bowyer locked up his berth in the Chase.

His car was “randomly” chosen by NASCAR to be taken back to the R&D center for a more thorough inspection. I use the term “random” loosely, because sometimes the cars selected had a NASCAR bull’s-eye on them long before any number was drawn out of a hat. In the case at Richmond, Bowyer was the only driver to race his way into the Chase that night and that was presumably why his car was selected.

Once back in North Carolina, NASCAR apparently discovered through the use of high-tech equipment that the car was very close to failing inspection. There are some who even whisper the car was illegal by NASCAR’s strict template standards, and that maybe NASCAR let the team go with a harsh warning.

Either way, both NASCAR and RCR are in agreement that the team was told about the Richmond car before anyone arrived in New Hampshire. Then, on Tuesday of this week, NASCAR called RCR in to go over their books and make sure the team had not made any mathematical errors that would have caused the problems to the Richmond car.

Only by that point, Bowyer’s car from New Hampshire also was at the R&D center undergoing a thorough second look. Late Wednesday afternoon, three days after Bowyer’s win, NASCAR announced the New Hampshire car had failed inspection.

People immediately wanted to know how a car could pass an inspection at the track, then fail three days later. According to Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, the equipment his officials have to inspect a car at track is limited, and it’s only back at R&D where the final examination can be done.

And that, Darby said, is how a car can be found to be in violation three days later.

Team owner Richard Childress said the New Hampshire car was off by 1/16th of an inch, and blamed the difference on the tow-truck driver who gave Bowyer a push after he ran out of gas, as well as other competitors who gave him a congratulatory bump.

NASCAR dismissed that excuse but has refused to divulge many details citing RCR’s right to appeal.

3. Childress is winning in the court of public opinion:

In a statement full of bravado, Childress came out swinging in defense of his race team. He blamed the tow-truck driver, the other competitors and touted RCR’s “long-standing reputation of integrity.”

But then he raised the $64,000 question: Since the team already knew about the issue with the Richmond car, and, according to Childress, had been told the New Hampshire car would be taken for further inspection, why on earth would they cheat?

“It doesn’t make any sense at all that we would send a car to New Hampshire that wasn’t within NASCAR’s tolerances,” Childress said. “I am confident we fixed the area of concern, and the New Hampshire car left the race shop well within the tolerances required by NASCAR.”

Clint Bowyer ran out of gas and needed a push to get to victory lane at New Hampshire.
US Presswire

Childress makes a pretty valid point, because only an idiot would still bring an illegal car after being informed the car would face intense scrutiny.

There may be more to it, though.

It could be that whatever is wrong with the Bowyer’s cars is no simple fix, and to properly correct it would have taken a major rebuild that RCR didn’t have time to do between Richmond and New Hampshire. It’s also possible that NASCAR’s inspection process is inconsistent, and the RCR team gambled that they’d slide one past the inspectors.

That RCR would be so brazen seems far-fetched knowing now that everyone was clear that NASCAR planned to check the car with lasers and computers and maybe even a bomb-sniffing dog or two.

Childress has raised some reasonable doubt simply by asking why his team would be so stupid, and I don’t think anyone has a good answer to that.

4. What does NASCAR need to happen next?

Off the bat, everybody needs a great race Sunday to return the focus to the track and not on this inspection sideshow.

Working against NASCAR is that four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson is a five-time Dover winner, and after his 25th-place finish at New Hampshire, a rebound Sunday is highly probable. Aside from Johnson’s diehard fans, not many want to see another one of his dominating Dover runs.

So NASCAR needs an exciting race and, when the checkered flag falls, a tight championship battle.

But they also need to assure a whole lot of people that everything is kosher, a belief that’s debatable now that it’s become apparent a car can fail inspection three days after the race. Kinda makes you wonder what the team who doesn’t get called back to the R&D center might be getting away with on their race cars.

The best solution is for NASCAR to take all 12 Chase cars back for inspection. If one of them can fail when given a more thorough examination, then all of them can, right? And if one of the RCR cars is off, since the entire fleet is built in an assembly-line manner, shouldn’t all of them be off?

NASCAR may argue they don’t have the manpower to inspect 12 cars that thoroughly, but that’s NASCAR chairman Brian France’s problem to fix. If the integrity of the sport is at stake, it’s up to him and Helton to restore the faith.

With so much at stake in this championship race, shouldn’t we all be certain that everyone is equal?

Jenna Fryer covers NASCAR for The Associated Press and is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow her on Twitter. Send Jenna a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 24, 2010