JOLIET, Ill. – NASCAR will continue to investigate whether Paul Menard intentionally spun to bring out a caution late in last Saturday night's race at Richmond, which ultimately helped Menard's teammate Kevin Harvick win.
But don't expect the result to be overturned.
NASCAR president Mike Helton said in light of suspicions, most notably Jeff Gordon calling Menard's radio chatter "fishy," officials will "look into it and see if there is anything."
"A lot of it is going to be interpretation, but I think it's on us to understand what all we can find as far as facts are concerned," Helton said.
Herein lies NASCAR's problem. The radio communication between Menard, his spotter and crew chief is readily available. But as Helton pointed out, those conversations can be interpreted to mean different things.
Menard can clearly be heard asking, "Do we need a caution?" When asked what he meant by that, Menard told SB Nation that he was talking about a planned payback against Matt Kenseth, who'd wrecked him earlier in the race.
"I was going to retaliate and then they said, 'We don't need a caution,' " Menard said. "So [that meant, 'Do not retaliate and cause a caution.' "
Later in the audio sequence, Mike Dillion, general manager of Richard Childress Racing, asks crew chief Slugger Labbe to "go to channel 2."
While NASCAR rules mandate that any communication between driver and crew chief take place over an analogue channel – the kind NASCAR officials can monitor – there is no regulation on discussions between team managers and crew chiefs, meaning they can communicate via an unmonitored digital channel, something driver Brad Keselowski contends every team in the garage uses.
According to Helton, NASCAR has yet to discover a recording of Menard's "channel 2."
[Related: Did Paul Menard spin on team orders?]
"There's not necessarily a guarantee that we hear the conversations on every driver every lap out there," Helton explained. "The parts of conversations that we've already heard are the ones that are subject to the interpretation. We just keep looking for any others that might have more into it than what we thought at first."
Team owner Richard Childress released a statement Friday denying any wrongdoing on the part of his team or Menard: "There were no team orders despite all the speculation in the media. I know Paul Menard well enough that he wouldn't have spun out on purpose even if he had been asked. We are at Chicagoland Speedway to win the race and get a great start toward the championship."
The likelihood that NASCAR finds evidence of wrongdoing that escalates above the measure of "interpretation" is low. Even if it did, Helton said what happened was a "racing procedure," meaning any policing would have had to have happened during the race, not six days later. NASCAR can't do much about it now.
"It's like balls and strikes, you don't go back on Monday and change an out call or a foul ball call," Helton said. "It doesn't say we can't. If we see something that falls under the broader 'actions detrimental' or something, it doesn't mean we can't, but more than likely it's going to be considered a race procedure because I think, so far anyway, a lot of it is just based on interpretation."
NASCAR is perpetually under fire for the way it officiates races and often finds itself criticized for favoring certain drivers. Helton's "interpretation" comments aren't likely going to placate the conspiracy theorists.
Asked about that, particularly with regard to allegations that the series makes in-race decisions to help Dale Earnhardt Jr., Helton asked aloud, "How's that worked out so far?"
In the case of Menard, some particulars support his spin being intentional, while others seem to disprove it.
The facts against Menard are that when he radioed that he had a tire going down, he was told to back off the throttle in order to finish the race. But why didn't he just pit? He was 80 laps down at the time with only 17 to go. There was plenty to lose, namely a hard wreck into the wall, and nothing to gain. The timing of the spin certainly was questionable, too, as was the fact that the right-rear tire appeared to be fully inflated after his spin.
The facts supporting him are that he asked about needing a caution on Lap 59. Why ask about bringing out a caution to help a teammate with so many laps to go?
Ultimately, the truth may never be known. Menard and RCR will deny wrongdoing to the grave, while NASCAR will do what it can to get to unearth more facts. But a definitive determination may prove impossible without the audio of channel 2.
- Mike Helton