By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond Raceway for the regular season finale to cement which 16 drivers will head into the playoffs with a chance at the championship, but four years ago, this race and NASCAR as a whole was rocked by a race manipulation scheme dubbed as “Spingate.”
Entering the race in September 2013, there were 10 drivers vying for the final five Chase spots, four of which would go to the drivers in the top-10 in points and the fifth to the top driver with a win, but still in the top-20. Those 10 drivers eligible would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Jr., Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, and Paul Menard.
Earnhardt, Logano, Biffle, Kurt Busch, and Gordon all had a chance to race their way in on points. Truex and Newman were going for the final Wild Card spot, and Keselowski, McMurray, and Menard had to win to make it in.
Gordon started the race from the pole and led the first 49 laps before Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch asserted themselves as the dominant cars over the next 200 laps. Clint Bowyer took over the lead at lap 270 for a 72-lap stint up front and Carl Edwards was the man to beat as the checkered flag drew nearer.
While the first 390 laps of the race were pretty cut and dry, the final 10 was anything but.
Ryan Newman would take over the lead from Edwards on lap 391, setting in motion the course of events leading to the “Spingate” scandal.
With Newman in the lead, he was in place to take over the final Wild Card spot ahead of Martin Truex, Jr., who was running inside the top-10 at the time, while the final spots in on points were slated to go to Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Biffle, and Gordon, who held the 10th place points spot over Logano.
Truex’s Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Bowyer, was running outside the top-15 at that point in the race and was told about the points situation over the radio.
Spotter Brett Griffin: “(No.) 39 (Ryan Newman) is going to win the race…
One lap later, Bowyer : Well, that kinda sucks.
Griffin: Nine more right here.”
However, along with the points update, his crew chief Brian Pattie also relayed a peculiar message to him, saying: “Is your arm starting to hurt? I bet it’s hot in there. Itch it.”
Bowyer responds with “Oh yeah” and then nonchalantly spins out on his own.
Now, a driver spinning out on his own is nothing new, but with the points situation his teammate was in at the time there was quite a bit of wondering if the move was on the up and up. What happened next didn’t exactly paint Bowyer and MWR in the best light.
After the spin, Bowyer stayed on pit road for two laps, even though his Toyota did not suffer any body damage and the only real damage was a blown tire that resulted due to the spin, dropping him even further down the leaderboard.
The third driver in the MWR stable, Brian Vickers, also got brought into the controversy when he was called into the pits for almost no reason by his team just as the race was scheduled to go back to green.
Crew: “We’re probably going to pit here on green.”
Vickers: “Are you talking to me?
Crew: “Yeah, we’re going to pit.”
Vickers: “What? I’ve got to pit? … I don’t understand. Pit right now?”
Crew: “You’ve got to pit this time. We need that one point.”
Vickers: “10-4. Do I got a tire going down?”
Crew: “Yeah…Come down pit road right now, get a good look at it.”
Vickers: “Did you find anything?”
Crew: “I’ll see you after the race, Brian. I owe you a kiss.”
Along with the unexpected pit stop for Vickers, telemetry also showed that he ran nearly 10-15 mph off the pace for the remainder of the race, dropping several spots down the running order.
Meanwhile, back at the front of the field, a slow pit stop cost Newman the lead to Carl Edwards and he only managed to finish third on the night. Truex finished the race in seventh place, putting him in a points tie with Newman for the final Wild Card spot.
As a result of the tiebreaker, Truex would be awarded the second Wild Card spot, leaving Newman on the outside looking in.
The 10th and final Chase spot on points also came down to a slim margin as Joey Logano finished the race one point ahead of Jeff Gordon, dropping Gordon out of the 12-driver Chase field.
Both Truex and Logano’s Chase berths came as a direct result of Bowyer’s spin, as well as Vickers running extremely slow over the final laps to put them in position to be able to make the postseason.
After the checkered flag flew, questions about the credibility of what had just taken place started to arise and the answer that Bowyer gave in his post-race interview certainly didn’t help to dissuade any doubters about the legitimacy of it all.
“We had a flat tire or something,” said Bowyer. “We went from leading the race and got back there and I mean, they were driving off from us. I got down in there and kept getting tighter and tighter and tighter and then the 88 got in there and by the time I got back to the gas, he got into me. I had so much wheel in it and it just snapped around.”
Among those not buying Bowyer’s story was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had finished 13th and clinched a spot in the Chase.
“He just spun right out, it was the craziest thing I ever saw,” said Earnhardt. “It just came right around. We were going through (Turn) 3 and 4…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. We were right there. I almost ran into him, so I’m glad we were able to get out of there with no trouble.”
Even though he was on the winning side of the controversial moves by his teammates late in the race, Truex maintained that he was unaware that anything was even happening.
“I didn’t know it even happened until after the race,” said Truex. “Marty Smith asked me that question and I was like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Honestly, I had no idea. I raced my ass off all night long, that’s all I can do. You know, I tell my crew chief what my car is doing, what I need to go faster. That was enough to worry about. I don’t have to worry about any other people out on the race track.”
“I knew Ryan was fast all night. I saw him way up ahead of me all night long. I knew we were going to be close, but the last I knew, the 22 had the last Wild Card spot and neither me or Ryan had it. I just knew on that last restart, I had to keep up with him the best I could because I knew based on going into the race where the points were, we had to stay close to each other. I didn’t even know that the 15 brought out the caution until after the race.”
With the speculation running wild that Bowyer’s spin and Vickers’ last race antics were all part of a points manipulation scheme by MWR, NASCAR investigated and by the middle of the next week, the sanctioning body lowered the boom on the organization, reshaping the Chase standings once more.
MWR was fined $300,000 and each of the three MWR cars was docked 50 driver and owner points. General Manager Ty Norris was indefinitely suspended and the crew chiefs for all three cars were placed on probation for the remainder of the year.
“Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that.”
The points penalty dropped Truex, who by all accounts was the most innocent party in the whole scheme, out of the final Wild Card spot, allowing Newman to move into the Chase field. The following week, NASCAR also made the unprecedented decision to add Jeff Gordon as a 13th entrant into the Chase due to his finish at Richmond being affected by the actions of MWR.
In the wake of the scandal, Truex not only lost his place in the Chase, but his sponsor, NAPA, also dropped their support of the No. 56 team, electing to move to the Xfinity Series with Chase Elliott the following year.
Without a sponsor for his team, MWR was forced to downsize to two teams in 2014 and wound up closing their doors at the conclusion of the 2015 season. We didn’t know it at the time, but the “Spingate” scandal would wind up being the beginning of the end for MWR as they were never able to recover in the aftermath.
Fast forward to 2017 and Truex is prospering with Furniture Row Racing, the team he moved to in 2014 and has since won nine races in the time he’s been with the team, along with just clinching the regular season points title last weekend at Darlington to make him one of the championship favorites.
As for Bowyer, he stayed with MWR until it closed, before moving to HScott Motorsports for a year in 2016 and over to Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Though he hasn’t won a race since 2012, he has been on the verge of breaking through and still has a shot at the playoffs at Richmond should he win on Saturday night.
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