NASCAR, MWR feel scandal effect at Chase halfway mark

NASCAR, MWR feel scandal effect at Chase halfway mark

NASCAR, MWR feel scandal effect at Chase halfway mark

Mark Ryan | 10/16/2013 | USA Today Sports

Halfway through the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the dominant storyline still might be the tainted event that set the field for the 10-race playoff.

NASCAR heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for a 500-mile race in which teammates have played critical roles in delivering drafting pushes and sandbagging has been employed as a successful strategy. That likely will prompt comparisons with the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway in which team orders discovered in an investigation of radio transmissions resulted in a reconfiguration of the Chase that added Jeff Gordon as an unprecedented 13th driver in the playoff format’s 10th year.

Though the maelstrom has faded from the scandal, there is a lingering stain that NASCAR might find hard to shake this season.

“What bothered me more than anything is the perception of it being just rampant through the garage,” Richard Childress Racing veteran Jeff Burton said. “I thought NASCAR had to do something, but then it seemed to keep snowballing, snowballing and snowballing. I know it’s coming this week, ‘Oh, he rode around in the back, he wasn’t giving 100%.’ ”

The reverberations from Richmond have brought fresh news each week, the latest that Michael Waltrip Racing would contract from three full-time cars to two next year in the wake of losing primary sponsor NAPA because of its unprecedented punishment for manipulating the Richmond results. MWR was fined $300,000 and lost Martin Truex Jr.’s spot in the Chase because of 50-point penalties to each of its three drivers, and the team’s face seems to have borne the most negative brunt of the fallout.

Repucom, a global company that tracks the impact and valuation of sponsorships across several sports and follows nearly 1,700 NASCAR brands, found a hit to the reputation of team owner Michael Waltrip in recent polling. In its Davie-Brown Index that measures celebrities’ influence and marketability, Waltrip suffered significant drops in aspiration (falling 24% from a top 20 ranking), endorsement (a 17% decline) and trust (22%) in a Sept. 29 survey.

But the two-time Daytona 500 winner, who will race the No. 55 Toyota at Talladega, said he still feels the love from fans when he ventures into the infield or grandstands (as he did at a short-track race in Sacramento, Calif., last weekend).

“It’s very heart-warming to see all the support I get,” Waltrip told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks, but I think people believe in our team and me, and we’re certainly going to get through this.”

Repucom executive vice president Peter Laatz said the impact was negligible for drivers involved in the scandal. There was no precipitous decline in the DBI for MWR’s Truex and Clint Bowyer (whose suspicious spin was part of NASCAR’s investigation), and both drivers now have surpassed their car owner in the most recent ranking. Brian Vickers, the third driver involved, wasn’t in the polling because he wasn’t a full-time Cup driver when the season began.

“It was surprising from the standpoint that everyone expected drivers to witness some sort of fallout, and we ended up finding a team owner suffered the greatest dip,” Laatz said. “I think Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex will be fine. Overall this was truly perceived as an institutional issue, and like a giant chess game, Bowyer and Truex were pawns that got caught.

“Everyone was more aware of those drivers because they were in the stream of consciousness, and ‘SportsCenter’ dedicated so much time to it after Richmond.”

Laatz said there wasn’t as much widespread PR damage for NASCAR. Polling showed an increased awareness that might be reflected in TV ratings during the Chase. Since the rain-delayed opener at Chicagoland Speedway, ratings and viewership have grown during the past four races with last Saturday’s Bank of America 500 on ABC posting a 3.4 rating and average of 5.5 million viewers over the course of the broadcast that was the largest audience of the Chase.

Poll reveals fan perception of NASCAR teams negatively affected

NASCAR chief communications officer Brett Jewkes said the sanctioning body believes the heated discussions about Richmond have dissipated among its fans despite the continuing ramifications and noted that teams have continued to announce new sponsorships (as Roush Fenway Racing did last week with a full Nationwide deal next year).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help Truex Jr., whose future remains uncertain with the loss of NAPA and no full-time ride left at MWR.

“The situation at Richmond was unfortunate, and there has been some very significant fallout from the proceedings there,” Jewkes told USA TODAY Sports. “Our fans are passionate about everything in NASCAR, and we love that about them. They know NASCAR is filled with highly competitive people.

“It’s our job to keep the playing field as level as possible and to take action when needed. We monitor sentiment in a number of ways, and we feel very comfortable that a strong majority of the fans realize that we handled this situation decisively and with the best interests of the entire sport in mind.”

But there were some negatives in the Repucom data. When asked how Richmond had changed their perceptions of NASCAR, its teams and its drivers, 28% of fans said their views of teams had worsened (vs. 18% for NASCAR and 21% for drivers)

In the polling, 76% of NASCAR fans agreed with the penalties and the addition of Gordon to the Chase.

“That’s all Jeff Gordon driven,” Laatz said. “He has such a massive fan base, so it was mostly positive that ‘my guy is in, and all is right in the world.’ ”

Repucom calculated more than 100,000 Twitter posts and 271 million impressions (factoring in retweets, replies and follower counts) from the night of the Richmond race through the addition of Gordon to the Chase six days later. The day after the MWR penalties, 73% of the tweets were positive, and it spiked to 93% on the day Gordon was added.

“I think that if social media didn’t exist, Jeff Gordon wouldn’t be in the Chase,” Laatz said. “I’d take it a step further that if social media didn’t exist, NAPA would still be in the sport.

“I think social media is becoming so responsive to what’s happening on the track and the business side. This is already a very aware fan base. With social media, it’s even more amplified.”

Jeff Gordon: ‘I think time heals all wounds’

So as the cyberspace discussion has quieted, do drivers feel as if the scandal is behind them?

“That’s a great question,” said Kevin Harvick, who trails Matt Kenseth by 29 points, in third place in the Chase standings. “There are just a lot of things that happened that everybody I’m sure looks back on and says, ‘I would have done this, this or this different.’ I’m sure that you could say that about the NFL too, on the concussion (topic) and the way that it’s been handled.

“I think that the repercussions that the team has seen from it are obviously pretty big. I think if they look back on it they would probably say that they would have done things a little bit differently. … If everybody had it to do over again, I’m sure that they would do things differently, but those were the decisions that were made. Everybody is trying to move on and it will definitely be something that is talked about for a long time.”

Said Gordon: “It certainly wasn’t a highlight. … I think time heals all wounds. I don’t know if we can fully put it in perspective, but each race we run in the Chase that everyone is pushing hard to win a championship is another step closer to putting that incident behind us.”

Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500, though, should put scrutiny on the so-called “100% rule” that was implemented by NASCAR chairman Brian France after Richmond and directed drivers “to race at 100% of their ability with the goal of achieving their best possible finishing position in an event.” Though “drafting” was singled out by president Mike Helton as an example of an acceptable practice, some strategies at Talladega have involved drivers taking that to the extreme of running at half-throttle at the back of the lead draft in an attempt to avoid trouble at a track known for its big crashes.

Drafting at restrictor-plate tracks also often involves drivers pushing teammates to winsvictories, which could raise debates about giving an honest effort.

Burton said he has heard people say he helped Tony Stewart win the 2011 title because Burton didn’t put up much of a fight in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Stewart passed him for second on his way to the championship.

“It’s always been like that,” Burton said. “He was going to knock my (butt) out of the way. That spot was way more important to him (than) to me. It was in my best interests. You could say ‘well, he wasn’t giving 100%,’ but you’ve got to manage the race the way you think is best. We can’t have the perception of manipulation (and) of cheating. On the other hand, this sport has always been about cutting a guy some slack if he would cut you some slack.

“The problem with all that is you can look at isolated incidents and build cases that somebody is trying to manipulate the race. That’s my fear. We’re going to hear it this week.”

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