NASCAR levied unprecedented penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing on Monday that resulted in driver Martin Truex Jr. being dropped from the Chase for the Cup title playoff and replaced by Ryan Newman.
The action stemmed from actions by MWR’s three-car Sprint Cup Series team at the end of the race Saturday at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, the final race that decided which 12 drivers qualified for NASCAR’s 10-race Chase.
MWR tried “to manipulate the outcome of the race,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, said in a statement. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field.”
This was the first time in the 10 years of the Chase format that the driver field was altered on the eve of the contest because of penalties.
MWR’s drivers — Truex, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers — each was docked 50 championship points. That dropped Truex out of the Chase and lifted Newman into the playoff.
The field includes the top 10 drivers in points after 26 races (Richmond is the 26th). It also includes two wild-card drivers who ranked highest among those 11th to 20th in points and who also had the most wins in that group.
Truex had one of the wild-card spots, which now goes to Newman. Bowyer already was safely in the Chase. Vickers is not in the Chase, which starts Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
“I am proud that NASCAR took a stand with respect to what went on Saturday night,” Newman said in a statement.
NASCAR also levied a record $300,000 fine against MWR and indefinitely suspended Ty Norris, a team executive who also was the spotter for Vickers’ car Saturday night.
Newman was leading the race, and poised for a Chase berth, with seven laps remaining when Bowyer’s No.15 Toyota inexplicably spun out, bringing out a caution period. After Newman pitted and the race resumed, Newman was shuffled back and finished third.
Bowyer and Vickers also made questionable pit stops in the final laps that ultimately helped Truex gain his Chase spot.
NASCAR President Mike Helton told reporters at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., that there was “not conclusive evidence that the 15 spin was intentional.”
But he said communications between Norris and a confused Vickers about Vickers’ need to pit was “the most clear piece” of evidence against MWR.
MWR later issued an apology, said it would not appeal the penalties and conceded that Norris made “a split-second decision” to pit Vickers “to help a teammate earn a place in the Chase.”
Earlier Monday, Newman said he’ll move to Richard Childress Racing next season to replace Jeff Burton in the No. 31 car. Newman now drives for Stewart-Haas Racing.