According to a review of radio communications, tiny Front Row Motorsports asked for a deal from Penske Racing in the closing laps of last weekend’s race at Richmond, and then helped make sure Penske’s Joey Logano made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by having one of its drivers back off.
David Gilliland’s spotter told his crew that Logano’s team wanted Gilliland’s spot on the track “and they said he’d probably be able to help us in the future,” according to the review of Front Row’s radio communications.
“You tell that spotter up there it better pay big,” replies someone believed to be Gilliland crew chief Frank Kerr.
“Yeah, it’s not the spotter, it’s the whole committee,” the spotter says.
“The committee knows what I’ve been asking for,” Kerr says.
“We’ve got the big dog and all of his cronies,” the spotter replies, a possible reference to Roger Penske, who watches NASCAR races from the spotter stand.
Kerr then says: “Travis knows what I’ve been asking for,” an apparent reference to Penske Racing competition director Travis Geisler.
A short time later, Logano passed Gilliland on a restart and finished 22nd — one spot ahead of Gilliland and good enough for a berth in the Chase field.
“Good job, good job, man,” the spotter says. “Hopefully we’ll get something out of that.”
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Trading favors on and off the track is common in NASCAR, but the series is already trying to rebound from the embarrassment of another team manipulating the outcome at Richmond. Earlier this week, NASCAR punished Michael Waltrip Racing and three of its drivers for shenanigans over the final seven laps and took the unprecedented step of pulling one of them, Martin Truex Jr., out of the Chase field.
Truex, who took the news hard, according to good friend Ryan Newman, broke his silence Wednesday in a series of posts on Twitter.
“I drove the hardest race of my life that Night & was unaware of any other circumstances other than needing to finish as high as I could to have a chance,” Truex tweeted. “This has been a very difficult situation for everyone involved. I hope we can all move on. I’m looking forward to Chicago.”
The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
It does so marred by the MWR controversy, and now the suggestion that Front Row hit up deep-pocketed Penske for compensation to get Logano into the 12-driver field while someone else was tanking the race.
A review of Logano’s team radio reveals no communications indicating any discussions with Front Row. Logano is told only right before the final restart that he’s racing three cars for position, one of which is Gilliland.
Penske and Front Row are both Ford teams and considered partners, and statistics analyzed by AP also show that after Logano passed him, Gilliland’s lap times dropped off by almost 1 second from the times he was running prior to the radio exchange.
NASCAR said it was aware of the communications “and is looking into it, but has yet to see anything in full context that requires any action.”
Front Row spokesman Jeff Dennison said the team did not heed a Penske request to give Logano track position before the final restart. An email to a Penske spokesman was not immediately answered, but team president Tim Cindric told SiriusXM’s NASCAR Radio that “there was no conspiracy, there was no bribe” and that Penske was not involved.
“Roger Penske is not involved in trying to manipulate the outcome of a race or what have you,” Cindric said, according to a transcript of the brief interview Wednesday night. “In fact, the first time Roger heard any of this stuff was this afternoon.”
All of this happened just before the MWR controversy.
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Newman was on his way to a victory that would have given him the final spot in the Chase field when Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a caution. That set in motion a chain of events that cost Newman the win and the Chase berth. It also cost Jeff Gordon a Chase berth and put Truex and Logano into the final two spots.
Gordon, initially disappointed because he said he felt he could have done more in the closing laps to earn a better finish, said his anger has grown over the last few days as he learned of the MWR manipulation.
“You realize that people all want to do things for their teammates to help them, but you also know there’s certain lines that have to be drawn with that,” he said at a Wednesday night appearance in North Carolina, adding he’d learned of the Gilliland and Logano situation en route to the event but didn’t have all the facts.
“There’s certain morals that are still involved with what you’re comfortable doing and not comfortable doing, and it has an effect on far more people than we could ever understand. That’s what I’ve really learned from this situation, is that it’s way beyond me and you, it’s way beyond the sport, it’s way beyond the fans. It reaches out much further than that. And I think that’s what’s so important for NASCAR to work on maintaining. And also, us, as competitors, have a responsibility as well.”
NASCAR took action this week against MWR, placing Newman in the Chase field and bumping Truex. It also fined MWR $300,000 and suspended general manager Ty Norris indefinitely. Bowyer, Truex and Brian Vickers, all MWR teammates, were docked 50 points each, and their crew chiefs were placed on probation through the end of the year.
Bowyer has denied the spin was deliberate. NASCAR could only prove one action — radio communication between Norris and Vickers in which a confused Vickers was told to pit as the field went green with three laps to go. The call was an effort to give Logano position on the track to pass Gordon in the standings and knock Gordon out of the Chase so that Truex could gain a wild-card berth.
But Bowyer wasn’t really penalized — NASCAR said it couldn’t prove his spin was intentional — and his 50 points were deducted before the seeding for the Chase. And Gordon felt that Bowyer also deserved to be punished for giving up late track position just as Vickers did.
“I thought (NASCAR) got it half-right,” he said. “I think as competitors and some of the media understand that it looks pretty obvious what caused that caution, and it’s pretty obvious that (Bowyer) came back down pit road, similar to what (Vickers) did. But yet that penalty really didn’t affect (Bowyer). It did affect MWR. That was a huge penalty to MWR, and it’s going to have consequences that go just beyond that penalty. In my opinion, it’s going to affect them in the future.
“In that sense, I feel like the penalty was justified. But it really doesn’t address what went on with (Bowyer).”
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Now NASCAR must also think about how it will monitor teams working together on the track.
It’s a tried-and-true practice in NASCAR, where teammates have long swapped position to allow a teammate — or even a driver from the same manufacturer — to lead a lap and earn a needed bonus point. Other lower-profile moves occur throughout the season.
On its face, what Vickers did Saturday didn’t raise too many eyebrows. But NASCAR President Mike Helton said “the preponderance of things that happened by Michael Waltrip Racing Saturday night, the most clear was the direction that (Vickers) was given and the confusion around it,” meaning Vickers’ laying down for Logano was the smoking gun.
That could mean that Gilliland doing the same for Logano is a punishable offense and that NASCAR opened up a Pandora’s box in singling out Vickers’ trip down pit road as the punishable offense in the MWR actions at Richmond.
Kyle Busch, who goes into the Chase tied for second, believes teammates help one another on the track. A year ago at Richmond, Denny Hamlin pitted late to help Busch gain a position on the track. It wasn’t enough as Busch still lost out on the Chase to Gordon.
“I say you do whatever you’ve got to do to get your team in,” Busch said Wednesday at Dover. “If you’re in that position and you have multi-team cars, that’s what they’re there for. Some people say I’m full of crap and you’re not supposed to manipulate the end of the race. Just let it play out as it plays out. Let the best man win. But, I was in the same position last year. There were ways it could have been manipulated and I could have gotten myself in the Chase. But I didn’t do it. And I missed the Chase.”