JOLIET, Ill. At the 11th hour, this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup added an unprecedented 13th member.
Less than 48 hours before the 10-race run to decide the champion of NASCAR’s premier series was set to begin at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR added another participant.
As a result of its investigation into the conclusion of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Va., and the efforts by teams to manipulate its outcome, NASCAR Chairman Brian France on his own authority added Jeff Gordon to the list of drivers who will compete for the 2013 title.
“We believe in looking at all of it that there were too many things that altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified, and I have the authority to do that,” France said.
“It is an unprecedented and extraordinary thing, but it’s also an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in multiple different ways on Saturday night.
“We believe this was the right outcome to protect the integrity … of NASCAR.”
NASCAR on Monday had already issued one of its harshest penalties in history to Michael Waltrip Racing for its efforts to manipulate the outcome of the race in an effort to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase field.
Points penalties assessed removed Truex from the original 12-driver field and added Ryan Newman.
A sport which has long prided itself on a philosophy of ensuring fans leave the track knowing the winner of the race has now altered the championship field twice in six days.
“We needed to try to see if there was a way that – we can’t go back and run the event again, but we also are trying to be as fair and equitable as we can with all the teams,” France said.
In addition to making Gordon eligible for the championship field, NASCAR placed the Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing organizations on probation through Dec. 31.
Transcripts of radio communications from FRM’s No. 38 team appeared to indicate an effort in the waning laps of Saturday night’s race to assist Joey Logano’s Penske team in improving its position on the track.
“We don’t believe that bargain ever happened, and we don’t believe anything happened, other than the discussions about it, and that’s why the probation – we’re sending we think an appropriate message there,” France said.
To help ensure no further issues in this area, NASCAR will hold a mandatory meeting on Saturday at the track with drivers, owners, crew chiefs and other team personnel and spell out what is expected going forward.
Gordon now enters the Chase as the 13th seed, 15 points behind leader Matt Kenseth heading into Sunday’s GEICO 400.
“This has been a roller coaster ride of emotions this week and an unprecedented set of circumstances,” Gordon said. “The fans have been overwhelmingly supportive this past week. We’re proud to be in it.”
Gordon’s owner, Rick Hendrick, who earlier this week said his driver was “robbed,” was also pleased with the decision.
“I applaud NASCAR for taking the time for a full review. We’re extremely proud to have all four cars in the Chase for the second consecutive season,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Jeff and the No. 24 team earned this spot.”
The controversy ignited with seven of 400 laps remaining Saturday night with Newman apparently on his way to his second victory of the season and a spot in the Chase.
MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun by himself on the frontstretch, which brought out a caution that helped derail Newman’s run to a win. In the final three laps, Bowyer and MWR teammate Brian Vickers made trips to pit road that would help Truex gain positions on the track.
For his part, Vickers defended his role in a first-person article posted on USAToday.com on Friday and vowed he would do the same thing again if asked.
Truex called the entire episode “a difficult situation.”
“I’m just ready to move on,” he said. “I went from feeling like I really climbed a mountain in that race at Richmond to going to be knocked out of the Chase.
“Do I think it’s fair? You know, I don’t know. I don’t run the sport so we’ll just have to deal with it.”