Craig Murto: Did Harvick manipulate the outcome?

Following a rather unusual ending to the Sprint Cup race at Talladega, social media went wild with comment from fans who were absolutely sure that Kevin Harvick manipulated the outcome of the Talladega race to ensure himself a place in the Chase.

But first, let’s look at the unusual ending. NASCAR already ruled that there would only be one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. The cars came down, got the green flag, and Jimmie Johnson and others spun off track. Before the cars even reached the starting line, the green flag was withdrawn and a yellow flag displayed. NASCAR said that since the cars never crossed the line to start the lap, the restart didn’t count. The attempt did not count as the one and only attempt.

As controversial as that was, it is not unheard of for restarts to be waved off for one reason or another. Despite some confusion created because many drivers thought that an attempt was made and the race was over, the cars got lined up again and ready for another restart.

On the first non-attempt, Harvick moved his car far out of the groove when the green flag flew. He was having issues that kept his car from coming up to speed.

On the next restart, he stayed in lane. When a car in front on a restart has an issue, you’re allowed to pass, which is just what Trevor Bayne did on the outside. But as soon as Bayne’s rear quarter panel was up to Harvick’s fender, Harvick’s car swerved and spun Bayne, creating an accident. The restart front row of Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. already crossed the line, so when the caution flag flew the race was over. A check of the film showed Logano in front at the time of caution, giving him three straight wins in the last round of the Chase. It also meant the Earnhardt was no longer in the hunt for the title.

So why are people so sure Harvick manipulated the outcome of the race?

By freezing the field at the moment of caution, Harvick did not lose all the spots he would have lost had the race gone green. Remember, his car wouldn’t come up to speed. In order for Harvick to continue on in the Chase the race had to end right there.

It also didn’t help that at least three other drivers accused Harvick of dumping Bayne on purpose. It’s one thing when fans come up with theories about such things, but when more than one driver accuses another of something like this it gets taken seriously. After all, these are the guys who do this for a living.

When Clint Bowyer spun at Richmond a number of years ago in an attempt to manipulate the outcome, some of the evidence against him was innocent conversation between Earnhardt and his crew, when Earnhardt stated it was “the darndest thing” because it looked like he spun on purpose. The drivers know.

Matt Kenseth was directly behind Harvick at Talladega. He claimed Harvick turned into Bayne on purpose.

But the three drivers who accused Harvick the loudest – Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – are all out of the Chase. Sour grapes? Perhaps.

NASCAR doesn’t take kindly to drivers manipulating the outcome of their races or championships in such fashion.

It’s accepted that the incident with Bowyer at Richmond was the beginning of the downfall of Michael Waltrip Racing, which closes its doors for good at the end of the year. After much time in the back of Harvick’s team hauler, NASCAR announced there would be no penalties against Kevin Harvick.

In Harvick’s case there is no smoking gun as there was in Bowyer’s, in which conversations between crew and driver revealed a conspiracy. Just go ahead and scratch that itchy arm right about now, Clint. There’s no assertive

“Kevin, if you keep the race from going green we’ll make the Chase” comment.

And just as it appears Harvick may have turned into Bayne to spin him, he may also have been trying to move up to get out of the way, and misjudged misjudged.

The fact of the matter is that unless someone comes forward with new information, all we have are accusations, nothing more. And we don’t condemn people in this country on accusations alone.

The cloud of suspicion may never be lifted from Harvick, a real shame if in fact he did nothing purposefully to cause that final crash. The only person who knows the truth of the matter is Kevin Harvick.

That’s especially true now that we have the playoffs. The pressure to perform is enormous.

Take Kevin Harvick, for example: Would he have gambled on fuel as he did if he were not so far behind in points? And was the gamble really worth it? After all, he had opportunities to pit for fuel and still work his way through the field for a good finish. Was it the pressure of the Chase that made the team keep him out, a decision that caused him to dig an even deeper hole for himself as the tour heads to Dover?

Now Harvick and a few others head to Dover with a win in mind, as it is the only way they can truly ensure advancement to the next round. You can bet that there will be some sort of unexpected drama and excitement at Dover, just as you can expect it in every race of the Chase.

A gimmick? Maybe. But sports are a form of entertainment. And the Chase provides more end-of-season entertainment than any other points system in any other form of racing.

Now, if we can only get NASCAR to be consistent as far as enforcement of its restart rules.

The leader of the race is the control car. He can go anywhere between the two restart lines, but he must go first. If he does not go, then the flagger starts the race. Simple enough. If any of the front row drivers jumps the restart, the penalty is a trip down pit road.

But at Richmond, leader Matt Kenseth jumped the final restart by three car lengths. NASCAR did nothing. At Chicago, Jeff Gordon jumped the restart to grab the lead, and NASCAR took a look at it but handed down no penalties.

Last week at New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski jumped the restart on leader Greg Biffle. But by the backstretch he gave the position back, and NASCAR still forced Keselowski down pit road for a drive-through penalty.

NASCAR told the drivers to police the policy themselves, and they didn’t. They whined about Richmond, then whined about Chicago. So NASCAR told them it would enforce the rule, as written.

Keselowski cried and complained, but NASCAR did what it said it was going to do. The situation does, however, call for an examination of the harsh penalty.

At New Hampshire, Keselowski jumped the restart. But he gained nothing, or at least gave the position back. That’s why the penalty seemed rather harsh after NASCAR’s refusal to penalize drivers the two previous weeks.

So here’s a suggestion for NASCAR: Allow drivers who jump the next lap to give the position back. Race Control can simply radio the team that the driver must back off and give up the position to the driver that he or she jumped on the restart. If the offender doesn’t comply within one lap, then throw the black flag for the drive-through penalty. At least give the offending driver the chance to make it right.

At Richmond, Kenseth would have had to back off and allow Joey Logano to pass. At Chicago, Jeff Gordon would have been made to give up the lead. At New Hampshire, Race Control could have simply radioed a warning to Keselowski; since he gave the position up himself, there was no action to be taken.

Some will argue that it’s so difficult to give up one position that the offender may lose two or three. So what? Isn’t that better than losing a lap driving through pit road?

Restarts are tricky; jumping one shouldn’t be allowed, but it also shouldn’t destroy a driver’s entire race. In the Chase, that could mean destroying a driver’s entire season. After enforcing the restart rule at New Hampshire, NASCAR has no choice but to equally enforce the rule at the remaining races of 2015. But I hope somebody at Daytona Beach is paying attention, and considers revising the rule for the 2016 season.

I was mistaken about the Chase. NASCAR’s been mistaken by not consistently enforcing the rules. But it’s no mistake to tweak a rule during the off-season to make it better.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.