CHICAGO -- Where is the line between one teammate helping another? That's the question asked over and over in the wake of this week's race manipulation scandal involving Michael Waltrip Racing. Well, the man at the center of it all certainly found a line Thursday, and he drew it at a media event designed to kick off the first week of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"I love you guys, I appreciate all you guys and what you do for our sport," Clint Bowyer told a group of reporters clustered around him at Navy Pier. "I've given my interviews. On national television. Over and over and over. I know you guys wrote about it. It's time to write about the Chase. Sorry."
A suspicious spin by Bowyer with seven laps remaining Saturday night at Richmond began a series of events that reached its apex earlier this week, when NASCAR levied perhaps the most severe penalty in its history -- which knocked MWR's Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who appeared en route to winning his way into the playoff until events involving two MWR cars intervened.
Bowyer's spin and a surprise decision to pit by teammate Brian Vickers on the final restart helped craft a scenario under which Carl Edwards was able to win the race and Joey Logano was able to secure the final Chase spot awarded on the standings, allowing Truex to seize the second Wild Card in a tiebreaker with Newman. Although NASCAR was unable to determine if Bowyer's spin was intentional, it used radio communications to conclude MWR had manipulated the outcome of the event, and imposed harsh penalties as a result.
Although Truex's playoff hopes were scuttled, Bowyer's Chase standing was left unaffected given that the point deduction came from the final regular-season standings. Bowyer went to ESPN headquarters on Tuesday in what was supposed to be part of a Chase promotional effort -- and instead became an extended interrogation on the events at Richmond from Saturday.
So when he arrived at Navy Pier on Thursday, Bowyer made it clear he'd had enough.
"I went to ESPN Tuesday and talked about all this, and gave interviews I think for like seven hours on national television," he said. "The one thing I can tell you is that I'm tired of talking about it."
Although team owner Michael Waltrip has denied that any conspiracy was afoot, Bowyer has yet to provide a definitive answer on whether he spun his car intentionally to help a teammate. There was no change on that subject Thursday, when Bowyer tried repeatedly to shift the topic to Sunday's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
"I've had a rough few days," he said. "Probably rougher than I've ever had. But I spoke my peace. I did national interviews all day long. I could have just as easily ducked away from all of them and not given an interview ? I think for me personally, I've got that behind me and I'm ready to race."
Well, not quite. First there was the matter of an appearance at "Contenders Live," a Q-and-A in a theatre full of fans who gave Bowyer a decidedly mixed reaction when he was introduced. "What about Gordon!" yelled some spectators who believed Jeff Gordon -- also narrowly left on the outside looking in Saturday night -- should be in the Chase ahead of the MWR driver at the center of the controversy.
"Be nice," program host Nicole Briscoe chided the audience at one point. She then proceeded to ask Bowyer a question that included the phrase "a lot of people expected you to -- " and was cut off by a fan interjecting "spin out!" No wonder those who know Bowyer best believe strapping into his No. 15 car for practice Friday will be just what he needs.
"The best thing, I think, in this situation is to get in the race car and to drive the car. That's going to be the best thing for him. Obviously, the rest of it is going to be something he's got to deal with, and it's not going to go away. That's going to be the hard part," said Kevin Harvick, Bowyer's former teammate at Richard Childress Racing.
"I think he comes across as the guy who can't make it through a cup of coffee without being distracted, but when it comes down to it, he's got to do it. He can do it. He's going to be the guy that probably handles it the best. ? He's going to have to be the guy to lead the charge and say the right things and do the right things, because he's really the only one that's going to be asked about it. He's going to have to be the guy who steps up, and he can do it."
Added Carl Edwards, who comes from the same region of the country as Bowyer: "Clint has always been a really good guy, a really good competitor," he said. "I've raced him in Moberly, Mo., in modifieds 12 or 13 years ago. He's just a racer. I have a feeling he'll be fine no matter what happens."
It can't hurt that Bowyer has already begun patching things up with Newman, who seemed the most aggrieved party coming out of Saturday night -- until NASCAR levied its penalties Monday night that put the SHR driver in the Chase. Newman said he received a phone call from Bowyer soon afterward, and the first thing the MWR driver said was that he was happy Newman was a part of the playoff.
"That's what I needed to hear," Newman said.
"I'm past the awkwardness already, and it's not because of the change in the points or the change of us being in the Chase," he added. "It's about the conversation he and I had, and it will stay that way."
Of course, that doesn't mean he's any less suspicious of the situation that originally prevented him from getting in. "To me it was as obvious as somebody walking into a convenience store with their facemask off, looking at the camera and pulling the gun out," Newman said. "There was nothing hidden, really. ? Not that we need to be robbing convenience stores, but in the end, that's my best analogy."
In NASCAR's determination, it was an unforeseen command to Vickers to pit off the final restart that proved the most conclusive piece of evidence. All three MWR drivers were docked 50 points as a result, and the organization was fined a record $300,000. Ty Norris, MWR's executive vice president as well as Vickers' spotter, was also suspended indefinitely.
"Obviously, MWR stepped over that line. We were penalized for it," Bowyer said. "I've given this interview on national television. I know all you guys (in the media) saw it, because you all wrote about it. The one thing I'm most looking forward to is getting this Chase started off right. We've had a great season. As far as that's concerned ? we know where the line is. The line was crossed, and there were penalties, the largest penalties we've ever seen in this sport. So, one more time. Again. We have found the line."
And now, he can't wait to find another one -- the line drivers take around Chicagoland Speedway.
"I'm looking forward to the weekend," Bowyer said. "I really am."
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