NASCAR facing questions about its integrity
It's supposed to be a week of celebration, a time where NASCAR's best drivers prepare for the 10 most important races of the year.
Instead of focusing on the opening Chase for the Sprint Cup event Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, however, the attention this past week has not been on the playoff chances of Dale Earnhardt Jr. or whether Jimmie Johnson can win a sixth title.
The sport has instead been entangled with teams blatantly fixing races, forcing NASCAR to respond by leveling record fines and even going as far to boot a driver of the Chase. Even with Chicago just days away, the madness is not over as officials continue to investigate whether Penske Racing brokered a deal with another team to benefit Joey Logano's entry into the playoffs.
Within the last 30 years, NASCAR has taken major strives to disassociate itself from the image that it is a backwoods sport more akin to professional wrestling than stick-and-ball sports like football and basketball.
But, by any measure, the sport has suffered a black eye this week. The old adage that any publicity is good publicity doesn't apply in this case, either. In this instance, NASCAR has had its integrity questioned -- the unseemly events in the regular season finale at Richmond have been compared to the 1919 Black Sox scandal that rocked baseball.
When NASCAR president Mike Helton and vice president of competition Robin Pemberton announced the sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing Monday night, more was needed than just a record $300,000 fine and the removal of Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase.
What also needed to accompany the ruling from NASCAR's power brokers was a pledge that the issue of race results being compromised would be resolved going forward. As has become palpable in the days since Richmond, though, this edict never occurred.
The fact is, when the Chase begins Friday, Clint Bowyer -- the driver at the center of the Richmond shenanigans -- will be among the 12 participants with a chance to win the championship.
"I read the fines and penalties and then I looked at the points and I was like, ‘What the hell?'" Earnhardt said Thursday during Chase media day at Chicago's Navy Pier. "I need to sit down and really think why NASCAR chose to do it the way they did it and see what the logic was behind it."
It would seem as if NASCAR's reputation has become muddled. In trying to blur the line between sport and entertainment, the pendulum has swung too far to the latter.
But as much as the evidence may support this theory, not everyone is in agreement.
Part of the charm of stock car racing has always been the element of anything goes, where pushing the legality of a rule and going beyond the bounds of what's fair are more or less accepted practices.
"I don't think the integrity is damaged," Earnhardt said. "This kind of activity and mentality doesn't happen every race and maybe not even every year. "It's a bit of a product of the Chase, but the idea of doing this is commonplace and has happened in the past. I'm not worried about (whether) the races are on the up and up."
"Drivers like myself have created cautions spinning out before [Earnhardt intentional spun himself out in 2004 at Bristol to cause a caution and was subsequently penalized]. We have thrown stuff out of cars to get cautions for certain reasons ... that's nothing new. The integrity is intact and I wouldn't question it going forward."
Not everyone agrees with Earnhardt's view that NASCAR's rogue culture is best left unfettered, though. One of the dissenting voices belongs to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
"It sure seems like -- and for rightful reasons -- there is a lot of sensitivity when it comes to the last race and the impact it had on who went into the Chase," Johnson said. "It's a slippery slope. I've seen the term ‘Pandora's Box' quite a few times and I agree, it's opened it up."
Having not grown up around the sport like Earnhardt, Johnson is seen as an interloper by many due to his Southern California roots and having gotten his start in motorsports through off-road motorcycling and trucks.
Yet Johnson's polish, along with his sponsor- and family-friendly image, represents the kind of driver that has become pervasive as NASCAR has evolved into a mainstream sport -- and it's come at the behest of longtime fans who identify more with Earnhardt.
Backgrounds aside, what Johnson wants is for the sanctioning body to take even greater control. He would like to see races stopped if there is question about scoring so officials can implement instant replay. Although he understands team orders can never be completely eliminated, he's in favor of tougher penalties when teams abuse the system like MWR did at Richmond.
"We can make a great attempt of policing and that's what I continue to mention to the NASCAR brass when I speak to them," Johnson said. "This is not a position they want to be in.
"Our minds are all on things right now with the final race into the Chase. But this stuff could happen come two or three races left into the championship battle and I don't want that in our sport."
The challenge now facing NASCAR is finding a happy medium between Earnhardt's old-school approach and Johnson's new age mentality ... Hopefully before the start of Sunday's Chase.
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