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Chase for the Sprint Cup: A fitting 13th addition on Friday the 13th

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Sep. 13, 2013

NASCAR got one right on Friday, suddenly adding Jeff Gordon to the Chase for the Sprint Cup on the eve of the 10-race run to the championship.

This won’t solve all the racing problems that have come to light in the last week. But it was a correct – and unprecedented – step. I advocated it in a column Thursday but never truly believed it would happen, because NASCAR officials had already spoken about the impossibility of figuring out the ripple effect caused when Michael Waltrip Racing attempted to manipulate the outcome of Saturday night’s race at Richmond.

But by Friday afternoon, NASCAR chairman Brian France had decided that ripple effect wasn’t as difficult to decipher after all. Gordon would be advanced into the playoff field, much like Ryan Newman was earlier in the week, in an attempt to clean up the mess caused by MWR’s bungling group of itchers, spinners and take-a-divers.

If Gordon ever suffered from triskaidekaphobia – the fear of the number 13 – he never will again. On Friday the 13th in the year 2013, the grandmasters of NASCAR added Gordon as the 13th driver in the Chase. He would say later that these were the most “unbelievable circumstances” of his career.

It was a good thing at the end of a bad week in which the curtain was pulled back to reveal one of NASCAR’s dirty little secrets – it’s not as competitive as you think it is out there.

There are many minor Wizards of Oz in auto racing, pulling puppet strings at 150 mph. They are called spotters and crew chiefs, and they do some frantic negotiating as the cars whiz by.

Deals are struck all the time in the heat of battle, between both friend and foe. In extreme instances, like last weekend in Virginia, we saw Michael Waltrip Racing trying to beat the system in a scheme that seemed straight out of a bad movie.

Gordon had nothing to do with all that. But after the smoke cleared from Clint Bowyer’s spin and all the rest of it – including an incident involving a suspicious pass that allowed Joey Logano to pick up a point he needed to make the Chase – he was suddenly on the outside looking in at the Chase, when he had been on the inside looking out before it began.

That wasn’t fair. There were a number of other things about the Richmond race that also smacked of unfairness – Bowyer’s great escape from a substantial penalty, for one – but this one wasn’t as difficult to solve.

Just add Gordon to the playoffs. It’s not like this is an NCAA bracket and you have to have an even number to let everyone have somebody to play. It’s all based on a cumulative points system anyway.

NASCAR now plans to meet with all its drivers Saturday at the Chicagoland Speedway, where the Chase begins Sunday. The organization will draw some clearer lines as to what sort of horse-trading is and isn’t allowed during races.

Let’s be honest. What happened in Richmond has gone on for years and will never be stopped entirely. It just used to be kept quieter because the ability to eavesdrop on radio conversations wasn’t as good. In other words, what happened in Richmond used to stay in Richmond.

As Humpy Wheeler, who ran Charlotte Motor Speedway for decades, told me: “These nefarious acts have been going on forever. They just caught them on Saturday night.”

I criticize NASCAR when they blow it. So it’s only fair to praise them when they don’t.

Adding Gordon to the playoff field was not a perfect solution. But given the situation, for this one particular issue, it was the best solution.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler