NASCAR penalized four cars from three different teams Wednesday after an investigation into their sudden retirements in the season finale at Homestead on Nov. 17.
With the Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 car needing help to secure a bonus for being the highest-finishing non-charter car at the end of the season, the Premium No. 15, the Spire Motorsports No. 77 and the Rick Ware Racing No. 52 car all retired in the final stage of the race. Those retirements helped ensure that the No. 27 car finished ahead of the Gaunt Brothers’ No. 96 car in the points standings by a point to get a bonus worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for being the top car without a charter.
Each car involved in the scheme was assessed a 50 point penalty and Premium owner Jay Robinson, Spire owner TJ Puchyr, and Rick Ware Racing owner Rick Ware were each fined $50,000. Premium Motorsports competition director Scott Eggleston and Rick Ware Racing competition director Kenneth Evens were also suspended indefinitely from NASCAR.
The points penalties ensure that the Gaunt Brothers’ No. 96 car finishes the season as the highest non-charter car and gets the prize money that goes along with it. NASCAR said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that it issued the penalties after a review of race data, in-car communications and interviews with the parties involved.
What went down
Ross Chastain was driving the No. 27 car at Homestead while Joe Nemechek was in the No. 15. Reed Sorenson was in the Spire No. 77 while Josh Bilicki was in Rick Ware’s No. 52. The Spire car has a charter — it’s the old charter from Furniture Row Racing and operates out of the Premium shop — and so does the Rick Ware No. 52. Neither of those cars were racing for the non-charter prize money because they each have one of the 36 guaranteed entries into each Cup Series race and the added money that goes along with being a charter team.
The No. 27 car entered the race with 154 points, while the GBR No. 96, driven at Homestead by Drew Herring, had 147 points, meaning Chastain (in the 27) couldn’t lose more than six points to Herring to secure the bonus.
But as the laps wound down, the 27 wasn’t running high enough, and because Chastain was so many laps down to the cars in front of him, there wasn’t any way for him to make up the necessary positions to earn enough points to secure the bonus. The only way for him to gain the necessary spots was if several cars in front of him parked (or ended their race early), allowing Chastain to make up enough laps to gain track position.
On Lap 227, Nemechek parked the No. 15 with what was termed a steering issue in the box score after the race. He was 38th.
Sorenson parked his car next with an alleged brake issue with 236 laps complete. He was 37th.
Bilicki completed four more laps than Sorenson did and parked his car after 240 laps with a brake problem attributed to that car as well. He was 36th.
Those three cars parking allowed Chastain to slide up to 35th, earning an additional point than he would have for finishing anywhere between 36th and 40th. Drivers who finish between 36th and 40th in a Cup Series race get one point. A driver who finishes 35th gets two points.
That extra spot from 36th to 35th bumped the points total for the No. 27 car to 156 after the race. Herring earned eight points for his 29th-place finish to put the GBR No. 96 car at 155.
Why what happened is a penalty
NASCAR is sensitive to teams manipulating the outcome of races ever since what happened at Richmond in 2013 when Clint Bowyer spun his Michael Waltrip Racing car to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. qualify for the playoffs.
The spin set off a chain of events that led to Truex getting kicked out of the playoffs, Jeff Gordon being added as an extra driver to the 13-driver field and Team Penske also getting put on probation for working out a deal with Front Row Motorsports to let Joey Logano pass David Gilliland to move into the playoffs in the chaotic late laps.
After Richmond, NASCAR instituted rules against race manipulation. It also has a rule in the rule book — though it wasn’t cited in this case — that “NASCAR members may not participate in, nor instruct, cause or enable other individuals to engage in any on-track or off-track action that could improperly influence, manipulate, or fix an event.”
The situation at Homestead is clearly not as significant as what happened over six years ago. But its public nature — a thread on Reddit’s NASCAR section snuffed out the scheme as NASCAR was investigating it after the race — undoubtedly helped push the sanctioning body to levy penalties against the teams involved to uphold its rules against race manipulation.
What crossed the line?
Teams have been fielding multiple cars for years in an attempt to make extra money or help pad the finishing position of its other vehicles. Heck, teammates will race each other differently to help one another out. And that’s perfectly understandable. As Martin Truex Jr. was lapping cars left and right in the first stage of the season finale he was told there was no need to lap teammate Erik Jones as the stage ended. He didn’t as he cruised to the stage win and Jones ended up finishing third.
Had Premium been able to do what it needed to do with just the No. 15 car to help the No. 27 car, it’s fair to wonder if NASCAR issues a penalty even if it could make a case that Premium was “manipulating” the race. It’s hard to prove inter-team collusion especially when a car parks because of a vague steering problem and it’s fair to argue that a team is allowed to do whatever it wants without disrupting a race to make sure that its organization has the best possible season from a financial perspective.
It’s much easier, however, to prove collusion when multiple teams are involved in a transparent scheme such as this. And that’s where it crossed the line.
Much like at Richmond in 2013, it was obvious something was fishy when Bowyer was instructed to “itch” poison oak before the spin. Had MWR done a much better job of covering up what it was trying to do in the late laps back then it may still be in existence today. Instead, the coverup was as hamhanded as the crime itself. And it led to the demise of the team.
If Premium, Spire and RWR had been much more methodical and secretive about the plan it might not have been found out and Robinson would have the extra prize money that he worked so hard to secure.
Instead, the spate of cars retiring at the end of the race and the teams’ communication on the radios made it obvious that something wasn’t on the up and up. While the obvious lesson here is to not try to execute a race manipulation scheme during a NASCAR race, there’s also another one at the forefront. If you’re going to try to manipulate a race, you need to do it in secret.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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