Jeff Gordon says the issue of teammates helping one another on the race track is complicated, is something that likely needs to be addressed, "and it's probably been lingering out there a little bit too long."
While it's not unusual for teammates to work with one another on the track, there are limits to what that it entails, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion told members of the media Wednesday, prior to hosting a fundraiser for his Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation in Kannapolis, N.C.
Five days earlier, the Hendrick Motorsports driver had failed to qualify for this year's Chase For The Sprint Cup. Two days later, the sanctioning body handed down heavy penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for its actions in the closing laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Clint Bowyer's spin with seven laps remaining set the wheels in motion at Richmond, sending the lead-lap cars to pit road where Ryan Newman, the race leader at the time, lost track position due to a slow stop. Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers, who along with Martin Truex Jr. compete for MWR, both gave up additional positions in the running order during the final laps of the race.
Those changes in the finishing order helped Truex Jr. secure a Chase berth, until NASCAR penalized the three drivers 50 points apiece for attempting "to manipulate the outcome of the race." The penalty put Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing) in the Chase, but left Gordon still standing on the outside.
"I'll admit, as teams we're all trying to figure out how to get ourselves in the Chase and when the Chase comes, what can we do to help our teammate win the championship?" Gordon said. "So, those things are out there. They happen. The difference is that there are lines that are drawn and to me, that's where this crossed over the line, but it's going to happen again so it has to be addressed in a big way."
Gordon finished eighth at Richmond, two positions shy of qualifying for this year's 10-race affair. The fallout in the days since hasn't made his situation any easier.
"It's been a roller-coaster week," he said, "just like the race was as well; we're in, we're out. Then seeing all that went on; I didn't even know when I was interviewed and after the race what people were saying and what was going on there. Then to see it all unfold this week and Twitter blowing up and Facebook and all those things, I've got to say the passion of the fans has really, really inspired me.
"I've always known I've had a lot of great fans out there and supportive fans but I had no idea what level that really went to until I could see the anger and disappointment that I felt also through my fans."
Reports surfacing Wednesday that NASCAR officials had also taken a look at radio conversations of the No. 22 teams of Penske Racing driver Joey Logano, on of the 12 Chase drivers, and the No. 38 of Front Row Racing's David Gilliland only added to his disappointment, he said.
"Just when you start to let it go and start to focus and move on to Chicago, then I hear what's going on with the 22, so it's been a nutty kind of week, I don't even really know how to take it."
NASCAR issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging those reports, but said it "has yet to see anything in full context that requires any action." The sanctioning body issued another statement on Thursday, saying it "is continuing to gather all the facts from last Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Richmond International Raceway. NASCAR will have no further comment until all the facts have been examined."
The disappointment, Gordon said, is "unlike any I've ever felt before, you know? Really, because you feel like as a team we did everything we could do to make it into the Chase and I was so proud of that effort and I just know that prior to that caution coming out my team was like 'you're in, you're in but try to pass the 56 (of Truex Jr.), which was not an easy task, he was racing really, reallyhard for good reason.
"I could've been way more aggressive and shoved some guys and probably wrecked some of the guys and I took it as far as I felt like I could take it and still made up a position or two but did not get the ones I felt I needed.
"I was disappointed in that, but when I found out later how they manipulated it, that was anger to a whole other level. It's hard to describe and it's disappointing ? you realize that people all want to do things for their teammates to help them but you also know there's certain lines that need to be drawn."
Officials "got it half right," he said of the penalties, adding he understood it was a difficult situation from the sanctioning body's standpoint. There will be consequences for those involved, he said, "but it still doesn't really address what went on with the 15 (of Bowyer)."
"We all as competitors and some of the media understand it looks pretty obvious of what caused that caution and it's pretty obvious that the 15 came back down pit road, similar to what the 55 (of Vickers) did but yeah, that penalty didn't really affect them," he said.
"It did affect MWR. It's a huge penalty to MWR and it's going to have consequences that go beyond just that penalty in my opinion; it's going to affect them in the future, so in that sense I feel like the penalty was justified."
NASCAR's Chase begins Sunday with the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Pat DeCola contributed to this report.
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