LOUDON, N.H. — When does cooperation bleed into manipulation?
That line, wherever it stands, is a very big deal to NASCAR. Sanctions levied against Michael Waltrip Racing pulled driver Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase and ultimately led to NAPA pulling its future sponsorship.
That’s a financial hit of tens of millions at a time when it’s ever-harder to get firm sponsor commitments in NASCAR.
That drew the attention of everyone in the garage during preparation for Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“You see a team go through some decisions, some (bad) choices, and you want to see a team get penalized for those types of things – no matter what team it is,” said veteran driver Jeff Gordon. “But you never want to see it go to this level, where they lose a sponsor. That’s really unfortunate.”
Every Sprint Cup team, regardless of whether it’s part of the Chase, is on notice about racing full-out all the time. That was the firm response to accusations that Clint Bowyer intentionally spun late in the Richmond, Va., race Sept.7 and Brian Vickers pitted without cause, looking to help teammate Truex get into the Chase.
Before Chicagoland last weekend, the first race in the 10-event Chase (essentially the sport’s playoff phase, this season involving 13 drivers), NASCAR established a zero-tolerance policy on drivers doing each other “favors” in regard to track position.
NAPA pulling out of sponsorship Thursday, effective at the end of the season, because of the bad publicity MWR generated, made this all the more chilling. So much so that Gordon wonders if fans will see manipulation where it doesn’t really exist.
“There might be instances where it looks like we’re helping a teammate when we’re not. We’re racing them hard, but they’re faster than us,” said Gordon, who was added to the Chase after it was determined he was harmed by Waltrip drivers’ actions in Richmond.
“That’s where it’s going to get challenging, where (the media) will do its job very well and watch very closely how business is being taken care of on the race track.”
Gordon is one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the Chase. For now, all four would need no reminder to go all-out. But as the points leads in the Chase spread out, there might be more room for interpretation of drivers’ intentions.
“How do we manage racing as hard as we can, as well as (appreciate) what’s happening with our teammates for the championship?” Gordon asked rhetorically. “We’re not going to do anything to manipulate the outcome of the race. We’ll do everything we can to race 100percent all the way to the checkered flag.”
That’s straight from NASCAR’s script these days. And according to Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, something that comes naturally to him.
“The only team orders we’ve ever had at Hendrick Motorsports is ‘Don’t crash a teammate’ – one very simple rule, and we still break that rule at times. So for us it hasn’t been a big change,” Johnson said.
“Anybody who saw Gordon and me in the closing laps at Chicago would know we’re both very hungry at that point. He almost had me passed a couple of times.”
Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, another Chase driver, didn’t specifically address Friday what MWR did, but he had a strong opinion on the corrosive effect this had on sponsor relations.
“It’s a tough economy, a tough (time in) the sport to pick up sponsors and bring them on in,” Busch said.
“It’s frustrating. There are a lot of race fans sometimes voicing an opinion that there aren’t enough competitive cars every week. Then they’ll send in comments to sponsors that they shouldn’t sponsor that team or that driver because of things that happen on the race track.
“All that does is drive sponsors away from our sport.”
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129. Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell