Conspiracy theorists always seek the proverbial "smoking gun" as proof that nefarious deeds have occurred, that dark forces are working behind the scenes to manipulate what we see and believe is honest and up-front.
On Friday the 13th, NASCAR conspiracy theorists didn't need to wait for a smoking gun. They saw the bullet fired straight into the heart of NASCAR's credibility. By using executive authority to add a 13th car to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, an honor which Jeff Gordon may have deserved but did not earn, NASCAR showed once and for all who truly runs this "sport," and it's not the people holding the steering wheels.
Quick recap: in the waning laps of the Richmond race Saturday night, Ryan Newman was winning the race and Jeff Gordon was in position to claim the 10th guaranteed Chase spot. But with six laps remaining, Clint Bowyer spun without any interference or assistance from another car. In the resulting restart, Newman lost the lead, allowing Martin Truex Jr. to sneak in and take Newman's wild-card spot. And Jeff Gordon slid back enough places as Joey Logano was climbing forward to give Logano the 10th position.
Race over. Truex and Logano in the Chase; Newman and Gordon out. Race over ... controversy just beginning.
• On Monday night, the first shot. NASCAR penalizes Truex in a way that removed him from the Chase, while leaving Bowyer, who may or may not have spun intentionally, completely free from recriminations.
• Wednesday afternoon, the second shot. Fox Sports 1 reveals radio communications that spoke to an alleged deal between Front Row Motorsports and Penske Motorsports to allow Logano to gain position.
• Friday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway, the killshot. NASCAR president Mike Helton and CEO Brian France, at a hastily-announced news conference, announce that they will be giving Gordon a special, unprecedented dispensation to be the 13th car in the Chase.
You don't need to be a NASCAR fan to realize how much this whole situation reeks. Indeed, the very people who have defended the sport against "pro wrestling on wheels" accusations are the ones who now look completely foolish for defending this sport. Consider events in other sports where the results on the field were demonstrably wrong:
• College football: Colorado got five downs against Missouri in a 1990 football game, won the game, and went on to win a share of the National Championship.
• Baseball: Armando Galarraga had a perfect game taken away from him by an umpire's incorrect "safe" call on what would have been the final groundout.
• Baseball: An umpire's bad call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series helped cost St. Louis the game and possibly the series; the Cardinals, then leading three games to two, would eventually lose four games to three.
• Soccer: During the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona punched the ball into the goal, one of Argentina's two goals to England's one. Video evidence later showed that he used his hand, not his head, in directing the ball.
There are these events, and so many more, where the events on the field weren't entirely appropriate or correct ... but they were left alone. Some of these events led to greater drug testing, or instant replay, or referee training, but in each case the results on the field stood. And in rare cases where an organizing body has taken steps to alter what happened on the field of play — stripping bicyclists of titles or college basketball teams of awards, for instance — the evidence for overturning competition has been overwhelming in a way that this was not.
"We believe in looking at all of it that there were too many things that altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified, and I have the authority to do that," France said in announcing the decision. " We are going to do that. It is an unprecedented and extraordinary thing, but it's also an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in multiple different ways on Saturday night, and we believe this was the right outcome to protect the integrity, which is our number one goal of NASCAR."
Try not to laugh too hard as you read that. This is NASCAR's version of "we had to burn the village in order to save it": in order to satisfy some nebulous and debatable question about integrity, the sport threw away any pretense of honest competition. Never has the sport's "we'll let you know the rules when we deem it appropriate" method of enforcement appeared more slipshod and haphazard.
It's important to note that this is no knock on Gordon. He's no more to blame for this travesty than Truex was for the Richmond debacle. But what if Gordon goes on to win the Chase? He'll have a Talladega-sized asterisk next to his name, and that's not fair to him. What if Bowyer wins? Or Logano, or Newman? Nearly one-third of the Chase field is tainted, and the 10-race Chase hasn't even begun.
NASCAR has tried for years to convince its fans that its Chase is a legitimate method of determining a postseason champion, and that NASCAR itself, as an organizing body, does not manipulate the outcomes of races or the week-to-week storylines. In a single ill-advised decision, the powers that be undercut all that effort. Worse, NASCAR embarrassed the drivers, teams, sponsors and fans who love this sport so very much.
This is an ugly day in the sport's history, and it'll be a long, long time before NASCAR recovers.