Murto: Can team orders be stopped?

By Craig Murto

There’s little doubt Clint Bowyer spun his car on purpose in the late stages of Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond.

And on top of that, Bowyer and Brian Vickers both took a dive in the final laps to ensure that Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) teammate Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase.

Ryan Newman led. He was going to win, and the Wild Card spots would have gone to Newman and Kasey Kahne because of their two wins. Truex, with one win, was out. Jeff Gordon was going to earn a spot in the Chase on points, and Joey Logano was going to get a Wild Card.

Bowyer spins, Newman doesn’t win. But in order for Truex to have a chance, Logano has to get in on points. To make that happen, Vickers is ordered to pit and Bowyer dropped through the field in the final laps.

The result? Logano and Truex made the Chase, Gordon and Newman were out. MWR successfully manipulated the end of the race. To ensure that one of its own made the Chase, there were team orders.

Team orders have been a part of Formula One since the beginning. Nelson Piquet Jr. runs in NASCAR because he exposed team orders in F1 and no team will have him. A few years ago Piquet admitted he followed orders when he crashed his Renault to benefit teammate Fernando Alonso. The sport attempted to ban team orders, but has since given up the effort as futile.

We’ve seen team orders in NASCAR, and we’ve seen it at Richmond. In 2011 Paul Menard spun his Richard Childress Racing entry to benefit teammate Kevin Harvick. And last year Joe Gibbs Racing pitted Denny Hamlin late in the race for no apparent reason but to give Kyle Busch an extra point in his futile attempt to make the 2012 Chase.

Team orders are a result of multi-car teams, and those teams are here to stay given the sport’s current economic model.

Short of banning multi-car teams, is there any way to rid the sport of such team manipulation? Probably not. But NASCAR sent a clear and strong message by fining MWR $300,000, suspending the team’s VP Ty Norris, and taking 50 points away from each MWR car.

But the points are taken after the race, prior to the Chase reset, so Bowyer gets no penalty entering the Chase. Think about that for a second: The car that purposefully spun and set all this in motion is allowed to enter the Chase without penalty. Truex, however, loses his spot in the chase and Newman is back in. NASCAR claimed it could not prove Bowyer spun on purpose, although TV analysts Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham — based on their driving experience — claimed it was obvious. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who was right behind Bowyer — indicated the spin was suspect. And the in-car camera clearly demonstrates that the spin was intentional.

NASCAR only got it half right; they should have eliminated Bowyer and Truex from the Chase and not only put Newman back in, but given Gordon the spot he was robbed of by the manipulation for which they penalized MWR.

NASCAR gets a lot of criticism for its race management, especially those debris cautions that pop up just in time to keep the field from getting too strung out, even though the offending debris either can’t be found or sat on the track for 25 minutes. At Richmond, MWR out-NASCARed NASCAR, and NASCAR didn’t like it.

But can NASCAR stop it? Probably not; these things most likely happen all the time and slip under the radar.

When the F1 team orders scandal broke over Piquet’s deliberate crash, the eventual fallout was that Renault lost many of its corporate sponsors, and team principal Flavio Briatore was banned. Will fans choose coffee now instead of 5-Hour Energy? You can be sure that Toyota isn’t happy and that corporate offices in Japan are buzzing; they were angry with MWR in 2007 when Waltrip’s car was caught with illegal fuel additive at Daytona. Will MWR lose any sponsor support over this?

Right now we don’t know. All we know is that everybody but NASCAR is sure that Clint Bowyer spun his car on purpose to change the outcome of the Richmond race and effect who would be in the Chase. And he partially succeeded.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.