RICHMOND, VA - NASCAR will have a new champion. For now, it has yet another conspiracy.
Reigning champion Brad Keselowski failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Saturday night when an ill-timed caution ruined his run at Richmond International Raceway. Same thing happened to Ryan Newman, who used a pass on eventual winner Carl Edwards with 10 laps to go to take the lead for what should have been enough to get in the Chase.
Then Clint Bowyer spun three laps later to bring out a caution that ruined Newman's race. The benefactor? Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer's teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, who struggled the entire race.
Newman and Truex were locked into a race for the second of two wild cards in the 12-driver Chase field, and the race win would give it to Newman. Only he lost the lead on pit road, wound up finishing third, and Truex grabbed the final spot in the Chase.
Conspiracy theorists immediately accused Bowyer of spinning on purpose to help his teammate, and a tweet from Bowyer friend Blake Shelton didn't help his cause: "Y'all should follow @ClintBowyer!!! The definition of team player!!!" the country music star posted on Twitter.
A despondent Newman wasn't sure if Bowyer's spin was legitimate.
"They are teammates. I don't know if he looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading, it doesn't matter," Newman said. "If that was the case, I'll find out one way or the other. At the same time we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn't. That being said, we're out."
Truex, who broke his right wrist two weeks ago in a crash at Bristol and has been racing with a cast, said he had no idea who even caused the caution.
"I didn't even know it happened until after the race," Truex said. "I raced my (butt) off all night long. That's all I can do. I tell my crew chief what my car is doing, what I need to go faster. That was enough to worry about. I don't have to worry about any other people out on the racetrack. I didn't even know that (Bowyer) brought out the caution until after the race."
Bowyer, who led 72 laps earlier in the race, denied any wrongdoing and said he simply lost the handling on his car. He said it was no different than Jimmie Johnson, who hit the wall earlier in the race to bring out the caution that jumbled the field and ultimately ruined Keselowski's Chase bid.
"I think we had something going wrong. We went from a car capable of winning the race, leading, to ... just went straight backwards," Bowyer said. "My car was tight as hell, (Johnson) blew a tire and hit the wall. I'm telling you, I was the next one. I know it's a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of whacky things. Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don't look too much into it."
Bowyer's explanation seemed suspicious, at least according to a replay ESPN showed of him immediately after the race. It was the view from the in-car camera in his Toyota, and included his team communications.
"Thirty-nine is going to win the race," Bowyer is told about Newman.
"Well, that kind of sucks," Bowyer replied.
"Is your arm starting to hurt?" crew chief Brian Pattie asked. After a pause, Pattie said, "I bet it's hot in there. Itch it."
Bowyer's car then spun.
"We had a flat tire or something," Bowyer said. "It just snapped around."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was right behind Bowyer when he spun, wasn't so sure.
"He just spun right out. That's the craziest thing I ever saw," Earnhardt said. "He just came around. I don't know if they can put up his brakes and his gas. We got all the technology. But he was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out. It was crazy. I don't know what was going on."
The winner wasn't even immune from controversy, with many believing Edwards jumped the final restart to get past Paul Menard. But Edwards said Menard spun his tires, and if he waited for Menard to get moving, both drivers would have been run over by the field behind them.
"The guy in second place in that circumstance is in a tough position," Edwards said. "If I had lifted and waited, I think the whole field would have run over us."
Kasey Kahne claimed the first wild-card berth, and Joey Logano, Keselowski's teammate at Penske Racing, qualified for the Chase for the first time in his career, by rounding out the top 10 in points. Logano edged four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon for the final spot in the field.
Kurt Busch finished second to make Furniture Row Racing the first single-car organization to make the Chase.
Busch had been plagued by a slow pit crew all year and it bit him on the first caution of the race when he led the field down pit road as the leader. But the Furniture Row crew was almost a second slower than all the other contenders, and Busch lost five spots, restarting in sixth.
He scolded over the team radio Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone, who said to The Associated Press before that the pit crew was under tremendous pressure Saturday night. It had been the weakest spot of the team all season, and Busch might have won as many as three races had the crew performed at a higher level.
"It's a new group, they started at the beginning of the year and the time that it takes for a crew to come together and gel and be running with the top five cars in the series, you don't get there in eight months," Garone said before the race. "The performance of the car has jumped ahead of the guys. It's not that they are bad, or we have bad stops. The two learning curves don't go together, and we are a little behind. If we can have good, clean, solid stops tonight, we'll leave the rest up to the calls on the pit box and Kurt behind the wheel."
The pit crew rebounded as the night went on and Busch, fired two years ago from Penske Racing, was celebrating his return to elite company.
"Well, how about them apples? Unbelievable," Busch said. "The way this team has grown, what we've been able to accomplish, it's an amazing feeling. We achieved something very special tonight."
Keselowski, who led a race-high 142 laps, at one point seemed to have the race in control even though a victory wasn't necessarily going to be enough to get him into the Chase. He had just pitted under green when Johnson hit the wall to bring out a caution that pinned Keselowski deep in the field, and he never recovered.
He finished 17th, and at 16th in points and winless on the season, he won't be eligible to race for the Sprint Cup title.
"I don't really have any emotions right now. We weren't good enough to make it and we didn't. That is the reality," he said. "We have work to do. At the end of the day, the thing about points is it is the best measuring stick in sports. You know who deserves to be where because the results speak for themselves. We didn't have enough results to get where we needed to be."
Performance also hurt Newman, who was more critical of his Stewart-Haas Racing pit crew than he was of Bowyer's caution. Newman isn't being brought back to SHR next season, and the team was too slow on pit road for the final stop and that cost him both the win and his spot in the Chase.
"We should have been able to come on pit road first and come off first," he said. "If we're a championship contending team, we need a championship contending pit crew, and we didn't have that tonight."
And that final caution ruined Gordon's Chase chances, too. Eighth before the yellow flag and ahead of Logano in the standings, Newman losing the race flipped everything and Gordon wound up on the outside looking in even though he still finished eighth.
"We were getting it done until that caution came out," Gordon said. "We still could have made it in. That restart just didn't go the way that we needed it to."