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NASCAR : Live by the gimmick, die by the gimmick
Well, now that it's all over but the shouting, accusations and hand-wringing, NASCAR has a major issue on its hands going into its much-touted "Chase" for the Sprint Cup championship, the grandiose, manufactured culmination to its season that it hangs its hat on every year. One of its teams - Michael Waltrip Racing - gamed the system. In the old days it was called cheating, but in this day and age of euphemisms and politically correct doublespeak, where everyone not only gets to compete but gets a hug and a trophy, too, we have to search for other terms. I'll let someone else search for those softer words, because what Clint Bowyer did Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway - at the behest of his crew chief and under orders from the powers that be at MWR - was flat-out cheating. Bowyer spun his car out to cause a caution flag so that he could help another team driver - Martin Truex Jr. - get into the Chase.

It didn't stop there, either. After the caution period, Bowyer and Brian Vickers both drove well off the pace allowing Joey Logano to gain two positions, which effectively locked Truex Jr. into the Chase, while locking Jeff Gordon out. Ryan Newman, who was leading the race with seven laps to go when Bowyer spun his car, was another victim, getting locked out of the Chase by losing the lead after the caution. If you would like to get the entire breakdown, please read colleague Nate Ryan's excellent piece in USA Today Nate is always on top of what's happening in NASCARVille, and he covers all the bases and gives you the blow-by-blow, plus offers some cogent perspectives.

What I would like to talk about is how NASCAR is going to handle this. Make no mistake, if the stick-and-ball media really gets hold of this story it's going to mean more than just a black eye for NASCAR. Because if the story gets the exposure I think it will, every taunt lobbed in NASCAR's direction - of offering up "racertainment" and of being purely a marketing vehicle for the benefit of sponsors, with racing thrown in as a sidelight (just to name two) - will ring true. The NASCAR marketing machine will be exposed for what it is: a commercial enterprise with horsepower - the emphasis on "commercial" - and nothing more than a marketing platform to please sponsors and the ubiquitous television "partners" who are so desperate for content these days that they will buy almost anything.

The interesting thing about all of this is that during NASCAR's formative years cheating was, for all intents and purposes, an integral part of the sport. It was part of the lore and the legend of stock car racing, a sport that exploded from its moonshining roots to capture the imagination of the regional south and then eventually the entire nation in its heyday. The rulebook was just a suggested starting point in the early days of NASCAR, and the talented minds who populated the garage area and the workshops took great pride in circumventing NASCAR's rules with some spectacular expressions of ingenuity and creativity. But there was a charm to those incidents and the stories from back in the day that is missing in action today. Today it's big, cynical business.

(And of course it should be pointed out before I go any further that NASCAR is certainly not the originator of the dreaded "team orders" plague in racing. Formula 1 has seen its fair share of ugly episodes and some would say that it's just part of the sport in this sponsor-driven era we live in. I don't agree, but that's for another column.)

Today, NASCAR is facing the music and dealing with the fact that one of its teams did everything in their power to get in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, even if it meant throwing fellow competitors under the bus in a blatant display caught on in-car audio recordings and video replays.

This incident also refocuses everyone's attention on the fact that the Chase itself was a marketing gimmick the moment it was introduced. Designed to bring relevance to a 36-race schedule that had grown to be unwieldy and hopelessly irrelevant with each passing year, the Chase was NASCAR's idea to bring excitement to the end of its season, because in too many past seasons the driver who was leading in the points standings in May was still leading in November. The problem is that the Chase was mildly novel for oh, maybe the first two seasons, and since then it has become as tedious as the rest of NASCAR's death march of a schedule, with too many cookie-cutter tracks yielding boring and uninteresting racing in a predictable dance everyone has seen before.

But as we all well know trying to get NASCAR to do things differently or at least make an attempt to look at things differently can be a fool's errand. NASCAR leadership is entrenched in the notion that they alone know what's best for their series, when clearly they do not. They invite pillars of corporate America and the television networks in to become "partners" when it's convenient - aka when they need their money - but when it comes to listening to ideas or pointed criticisms from these partners as to how they could do things better, they retreat into "it's a family enterprise" mode and all interested parties have to cool their heels while the powers that be in NASCAR make a decision - or non-decisions as the case may be - hoping that whatever is decided that it's somehow better than the way right things are now, which admittedly is a crap shoot.

Saying NASCAR should revisit its schedule and actually do something to make the series and the racing better is like saying the city of Detroit should press the reset button and just start over. It's a nice thought but there are far too many things in the way that prevent any meaningful progress from being made.

As for the urgent matter facing NASCAR right this minute, any shred of credibility that the gimmicky Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship had has to be saved.

And given that monetary fines are irrelevant and usually inconsequential, and suspensions are limited in their effectiveness, NASCAR has to do the right thing and park Michael Waltrip Racing for the rest of the 2013 schedule.

Anything less would be a travesty. Autoextremist
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