Clint Bowyer steaming over penalty
DOVER, Del. -- Clint Bowyer was standing next to the Monster Mile trophy, an angry-looking character carved out of sandstone and a granite-like material.
"About like me," Bowyer said.
Bowyer came to the Dover International Speedway media center red-in-the-face fired up Friday. He came with a piece of yellow legal pad paper filled with notes he wrote at 6 a.m. and a quarter that he pulled from his pocket to show just how far NASCAR claimed his car was off after Sunday's victory at New Hampshire.
He came with the conviction of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, of Patrick Henry giving his "give me liberty or give me death" speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses, pleading that his Richard Childress Racing team has done nothing illegal.
He came to defend his honor, the honor of his team, the honor of RCR.
He came to say he was wronged.
But not everybody agreed.
"This is not two weeks old," Denny Hamlin pointed out sometime after Bowyer reminded us that Hamlin's car and Jimmie Johnson's car had to go through tech twice at New Hampshire before passing height inspection. "They were warned, and they were warned before Richmond. Everyone in the garage knows that. They [Bowyer's team] wanted to get everything they could. You can't fault them for that."
Good thing Bowyer spoke in the morning session and wasn't around to hear these jabs. He might have smashed the Monster Mile trophy over Hamlin's head.
You can't blame Bowyer for being mad. He left New Hampshire on top of the world after his first win in 88 races and almost on top of the Chase standings -- within 35 points of Hamlin.
Then came rumors that the left-rear quarter panel of his No. 33 car was too high -- by the thickness of a quarter -- after a high-tech inspection at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. Then came Wednesday's announcement that Bowyer was being fined 150 points and crew chief Shane Wilson was suspended for six weeks, both of which are being appealed.
"I found myself, instead of celebrating a win, trying to figure out what the hell they're talking about," Bowyer said. "I am angry about the whole thing."
A lot of people still want to know what NASCAR is talking about. A lot of people still are angry.
People are wondering: If Bowyer's car can be found sixty-thousandths of an inch beyond the tolerances the governing body allows, how many other "illegal" cars are there in the garage?
It begged the question: Why not take all 12 Chase cars back to Concord for a closer look. Heck, take all 43. If a non-Chase car finishes ahead of a Chase car and is illegal, that takes points from the Chase car.
"If you want to be fair, yeah, I think so," agreed Alan Gustafson, Mark Martin's crew chief.
Gustafson went through this a year ago starting at Dover. Martin's car and Johnson's were taken to R&D even though they passed prerace and postrace inspections. They were told they were on the verge of violating tolerances, or -- as Sprint Cup series director John Darby said at the time -- there was no room to breathe.
It didn't change much. Johnson went on to win his fourth straight title, and Martin finished second for the fifth time in his career.
What happened to Bowyer this week changed everything. It took him out of championship contention, dropping him 185 out of first. That's basically a race behind the rest of the field.
The rest of the folks in the garage have to be walking on eggshells, thinking this can happen to them. If you believe Bowyer, NASCAR knew teams were getting too close to the line and made him the so-called sacrificial lamb.
"I truly believe that these rumors forced their hand in making a decision," Bowyer said. " I think NASCAR has a lot of problems with a lot of cars on the racetrack being out of the box, and I think they needed to set an example with something."
Crew chiefs up and down the garage will agree they're pushing the tolerances. They'll tell you that if more cars were taken to the R&D center, there'd be a lot more penalties. They'll also tell you they're paid to push the envelope.
They have to. It's what the sport was built on.
But in most cases, the cheating is known to be deliberate. In most cases, the infraction is caught at the track and everybody is clear on what happened.
There's a lot of gray here. And when you consider that the No. 33 team had been warned, that owner Richard Childress gave everybody what Bowyer called a "butt chewing" before New Hampshire, that the team was told the car would come back to the R&D center for review regardless of what it did at New Hampshire, then you're at least left wondering whether something happened to create this.
Or whether somebody on the 33 team is an idiot.
Richard Childress claims the violation could have been the result of the tow truck pushing the car to the garage after it ran out of gas during a victory burnout. Bowyer on his yellow paper noted that possibility, as well as hard knocks by Tony Stewart during the race and the congratulatory bump by Dale Earnhardt Jr. afterward.
Now, understand, when NASCAR says the car was beyond tolerances, there is give-and-take. It's like speeding on pit road. They give the driver 5 mph over the limit, so if you go 5.01 mph over, it's a penalty.
That's black and white.
There was even a kink in the left rear quarter panel that suggested the car was damaged during the race, although most agree it couldn't have come from a wrecker.
OK, most racers outside of RCR.
"My dad owns a towing business and has since I was born in 1979," Bowyer said. "I know a little something about wreckers. About 15 years ago, they took them push bumpers off the front of them for this very reason.
"I remember back when people used to come [during] a snowstorm and say, 'Please push me out of the snowbank.' You push them out and two days later they'd show up with a body shop bill in their hand."
Could that have happened to Bowyer's car? NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton hasn't seen such a case in his 30 or so years in the sport. He defends NASCAR's decision and the inspection process, saying there's no reason to bring 12 Chase cars or all 43 cars home for inspection.
"We aren't in any epidemic by any shape or form," he said.
Well, as far as they know. There are cars that never have been to R&D to be tested with lasers, so there's no way of knowing whether they are legal.
"I think every car down here is close to the edge," Gustafson said.
Gustafson actually felt his team was at a disadvantage in last season's Chase, believing it was being held to higher standards than the rest of the garage. If he could be king for a day, "the inspection on race day is the inspection you're held to."
If Bowyer were king, he might blow up the R&D center.
"I don't like the R&D center," he said. "I think what you bring to the racetrack is what they inspect."
He went on to say that the cars are torn down at R&D to the point that they don't resemble what's on the track.
"These things are bolted on and could interrupt the way the car is measured," he said. "How can that possibly be kept in the same box?"
This is like a child of the 1970s understanding the new math. But at the same time, if one Chase car is going to be inspected at R&D, then all 12 need to be to leave no doubt. Crew chiefs will tell you the more times you go through there, the more you understand just how far you can and can't push.
It won't happen. It would be too expensive to ship the equipment needed to inspect that way at the track and too time consuming. As Pemberton said, they'd have to come a day early and leave a date late.
If you go with Hamlin's theory, NASCAR needed to draw the line. He calls it a "crock" that Bowyer downplayed any advantage he got.
"I know when we gain five points of downforce, our car runs a ton better," Hamlin said. "He wasn't speeding on pit road by 5 mph. He was speeding by 5.5. They should just be happy they're in the Chase at this point."
Bowyer isn't happy.
"I apologize for coming in here and being stern," he said. "This isn't me. This is completely out of character for me. I don't like being in this situation. But if [NASCAR] paints you into the corner, you've got to be able to react."
Bowyer did that.
Loud and clear.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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