NASCAR the loser in this one
See ya Clint. Thanks for playing. You're out.
NASCAR officials have changed their minds, and in so doing, have virtually eliminated Clint Bowyer from Chase contention.
It took three days for NASCAR to reverse its position and penalize the No. 33 Chevy team. And this one's a whopper -- 150 points, easily the most ever for a playoff driver.
"I'm sure it leaves them with a knot in their throat," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "But it does for us, too. It's not any easier on our part than it is on the competitor. We don't want these things to happen, either."
It's the way it happened that's in question. NASCAR might as well call this an 11-man Chase now. Bowyer is done. He still goes down in the books as the winner at New Hampshire to start the Chase.
In reality, Bowyer is the biggest single-event loser in Chase history. He goes from 35 points down in second place to 185 points down in 12th.
And the crazy thing is everything was OK after the race. That's right. It was all ice cream and cookies.
So what happened? From the fan's perspective, how does a team go from an innocent verdict on inspection after the race to NASCAR's version of the death penalty 72 hours later?
A trust issue is at stake here. How can fans know if the winner did things fair and square?
Usually about an hour or so after each race, a NASCAR official will announce to the media these words: "All clear."
It indicates the postrace inspection process is complete and the winning car -- and all the other cars -- had no issues. That's what happened Sunday in New Hampshire.
Now we have a new statement: "Upon further review "
NASCAR inspectors reserve the right to rethink their position. They looked at Bowyer's car more closely back in North Carolina and said, "Ah-ha! You cheated!!"
That's how is appears, but Sprint Cup director John Darby said that isn't the case. He used the example of engines always being brought back for further inspections after being cleared after the race.
"It's two different styles of inspections," Darby said on a Wednesday conference call about the penalty. "We inspect the engines the best we can, but to inspect them thoroughly, they must be disassembled.
"The car [body] today is much the same way. Like an engine, it's too intrusive to run the full inspection [at the track]. You have to disassemble some of the race car."
But this situation is different from the way it normally works. If NASCAR inspectors feel something might be wrong after the postrace inspection, they won't give the all clear on Sunday evening.
A NASCAR official will say the car had an issue in the inspection process and will be further examined back at the Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.
At that point, everyone knows something bad probably could happen.
But how can a car go from passing inspection on Sunday to being so far outside the rules on Wednesday that the team receives a crushing penalty to ruin its season?
If the car was that far out of whack, did it really take a fine-toothed-comb inspection to find the violation?
NASCAR officials also look bad because they won't say exactly what was wrong with the car.
"It revolves around how [the] body is located on the frame," Darby said. "Respectfully, our teams do have the ability to proceed with an appeal, so [to] get into specific measurements of a car is not be fair to Richard Childress Racing or NASCAR."
On Tuesday, an Associated Press story said Bowyer's car at Richmond one week earlier was close to being illegal.
"They were in the box [at Richmond], but getting close to some of the tolerances and we asked them to come in to see if they aren't getting off on one of their build sheets," Pemberton told the AP.
That prompted me to write a blog saying, "So what? Isn't that the goal of every team? Aren't they supposed to be close?"
"Close to the line is something we see frequently,'' Darby said Wednesday. "Teams are much more comfortable now with the car and our procedures. So they use our tolerances to their advantage. But a big responsibility of NASCAR is to keep people out of trouble."
It also should be NASCAR's responsibility to let the public know if a winning car might have crossed the line. A team can't be OK and a winner on Sunday, but the biggest cheaters in Chase history on Wednesday.
Either they broke the rules or they didn't. There should be no gray area here.
But there was a huge gray area in this case, and that's unfair to everyone involved -- drivers, crews and especially the fans.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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