RICHMOND - In the moments after Carl Edwards won the Federated Auto Parts 400, the scene along pit road at Richmond International Raceway was a study in contrasts. Over near the finish line, there was Carl Edwards, burning out and backflipping in exultation. Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kurt Busch, three of the last members of the 2013 Chase, stood by their cars and welcomed well-wishers. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked quietly with team associates; Delana Harvick wore a long red dress that matched the color of her husband's car.
And over near the entrance to the pits, far from the crush of fans and friends and media, the center of everyone's attention stood virtually alone, wanting nothing more than a beer.
Clint Bowyer was waiting for a quick television hit, and as he whiled away the minutes before the camera went live, he asked around for a beer. He grumbled about the performance of his car, looking at ESPN's screen of race statistics. And as he surely knew, he was at the dead center of the season's biggest conspiracy theory.
Here's how it ran: with six laps remaining, Ryan Newman was leading. With a win, he would make the Chase, leaving Martin Truex Jr. on the outside looking in. (Joey Logano was also two points behind Jeff Gordon for the final guaranteed Chase spot.) Over the radio, Bowyer was told that Newman was leading the race and was asked how his arm was feeling.
And then Bowyer spun, and all hell broke loose.
During the caution, Newman lost four spots due to a poor pit stop. On the restart, Gordon found himself shuffled back several positions. And just like that, in the space of five minutes, Gordon and Newman were out of the Chase. Logano and Truex, who happens to be Bowyer's teammate, were in.
Fans, start your conspiracy theories. Did Bowyer spin on purpose? Was "is your arm hurting?" the cue for him to take a dive? Did Bowyer at long last get his revenge on Gordon for their fight at Phoenix last year?
To hear Bowyer say it, there was nothing more to the spin than a car finally giving out. To hear everyone else, it was a premeditated and calculated dive that changed the entire complexion of the Chase.
"Trust me, I would have much rather been winning the race and been over in victory lane than in here bummed out," Bowyer said in the media center after the race. "Extremely bummed, you know, [at] the outcome of the race. Extremely even more bummed, once you get out [and] you realize there were implications."
Bowyer brushed off the idea that his spin affected the race: "If it wasn't me, could have been a debris caution," he said. "Who knows, whatever."
Still, quite a few observers were less than convinced. ESPN's Jamie Little led off with an on-camera question of whether Bowyer spun on purpose. And other drivers left the suggestion hanging in the air.
"He just spun right out," Earnhardt said afterward. "That's the craziest thing I ever saw. He just came right around ... We got all the technology. But he was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out. It was crazy. I don't know what was going on."
"They are teammates," Newman said of Truex and Bowyer. "I don't know if he looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading. It doesn't matter. If that was the case, I'll find out one way or the other."
And there were other clues at the track:
— Alan Cavanna (@CopaCavanna) September 8, 2013
Country music star Blake Shelton fanned the flames:
Does it make a difference if Bowyer spun on purpose? In reality, probably not. Bowyer's right in that there almost surely would have been a late caution to bunch up the field. Debris had a way of popping up out of nowhere at Richmond on Saturday night. Still, if Truex or Logano is able to win the Chase — a long shot, true, but a shot nonetheless — this night at Richmond will be one of the key plot points in that narrative.
The Chase now begins with Matt Kenseth leading with 2,015 points. Right behind him are Johnson and Kyle Busch, followed by Kevin Harvick and Edwards, and Logano and Greg Biffle. Bowyer, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Truex all enter the Chase with no bonus points. And the Chase begins with the kind of storyline that's NASCAR's dream, even if Bowyer thinks there's nothing to see here, move along:
"I know it's a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead and get creative," Bowyer said. "But don't look too much into it."
Too late for that, Clint. Far too late.