JOLIET, Ill. — NASCAR added Jeff Gordon to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field Friday, a stunning and unprecedented step in the fallout from at least two attempts to manipulate the results of the regular season-ending race at Richmond last weekend.
Chairman Brian France expanded the field to 13 drivers for the first time since the format was implemented in 2004.
Front Row Motorsports appeared to ask for a deal from Penske Racing in the closing laps at Richmond as part of an apparent request from Penske to give Joey Logano pivotal track position he needed to earn a spot in the Chase. Logano passed Front Row driver David Gilliland, who then seemed to slow down by at least 1 mph, according to an Associated Press review of radio communications and data.
France said NASCAR could not determine there was a bargain between Front Row and Penske, but still believed the move was necessary to protect the integrity of the series. He said both teams had been placed on probation for the rest of the season.
“Too many things altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team,” France said. “More than anything it’s just the right thing to do. There were just too many things that went on Saturday night.”
Gordon, the four-time champion, now joins Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the Chase.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions this week. Unprecedented set of circumstances,” Gordon said. “I’m extremely happy for this. We’re proud to be in it. An incredible set of opportunities now lie on our shoulders to show we believe in the Chase.”
Gordon goes into the Chase as the 13th seed, 15 points behind leader Matt Kenseth when the 10-race series begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Owner Rick Hendrick agreed was pleased with the ruling.
“I applaud NASCAR for taking the time for a full review,” he said in a statement. “We’re extremely proud to have all four cars in the Chase for the second consecutive season. Jeff and the No. 24 team earned this spot.”
Trading favors on and off the track is common in NASCAR, but the series had to investigate the Penske and Front Row bargaining allegation following the embarrassment of Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempt to manipulate the outcome of the race to benefit Martin Truex Jr. NASCAR on Monday punished the MWR organization for its shenanigans over the final seven laps and pulled Truex out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman.
Truex, in his first comments since he was knocked out of the Chase on Monday, said it’s been a surreal week. An unwitting victim of his teammates’ efforts to help him, he lost his Chase bid after driving the last two weeks with two broken bones in his wrist and a cast on his right arm.
“All I did the last two weeks was drive my heart out,” he said Friday. “I went from feeling like I really climbed a mountain in that race at Richmond to going to being knocked out of the Chase.”
Speaking before NASCAR’s decision to put Gordon in the Chase, Truex was asked what he’d think if the field was expanded to include the four-time champion.
“Well, my team deserves to be in this Chase as much as any of those teams. If they’re going to start putting people back in, they ought to consider us, too,” Truex said.
But Truex is still out, punishment for his teammates’ working so hard to help him get in. NASCAR will hold a mandatory team and driver meeting Saturday to clarify “the rules of the road” moving forward. France would not specify what won’t be tolerated going forward.
“Obviously we drew a line with the penalties with Michael Waltrip Racing,” France said. “We’re going to make sure that we have the right rules going forward, so that the integrity of the competitive landscape of the events are not altered in a way or manipulated.”
The entire mess began a mere seven laps from the finish Saturday night with Newman en route to a victory that would have given him the final spot in the Chase. MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a caution and setting in motion a chain of events that cost Newman the win and a Chase berth.
It also cost Gordon a Chase berth and put Truex and Logano into the final two spots.
It later became clear that Bowyer’s spin was deliberate — although NASCAR has said it can’t prove that — and that Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers allowed Logano to gain late finishing positions to bump Gordon out of the Chase to aid Truex.
Among the penalties levied against MWR was a $300,000 fine and the indefinite suspension of general manager Ty Norris. Bowyer, Truex and Brian Vickers were docked 50 points each, and their crew chiefs were placed on probation through the end of the year.
Bowyer has denied the spin was deliberate. NASCAR could only prove one action — radio communication between Norris and Vickers in which a confused Vickers was told to pit as the field went green with three laps to go.
Once NASCAR singled out that action, a Pandora’s box was opened and the apparent bargaining between Penske and Front Row became dicey.
And Gordon’s anger began to grow. Gordon said he felt that Bowyer also deserved to be punished for giving up late track position, just as Vickers did, and he called NASCAR’s penalties “half right.”
And now he’s in the Chase with Bowyer — but only after the second controversy.