AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Finally this hour, NASCAR nastiness. This past Saturday, one team appeared to pull out all the stops to rig a big race. One driver spun out his car, and another took an unnecessary pit stop. Both moves helped advance their teammate to the playoffs. NASCAR fined their team - Michael Waltrip Racing - $300,000, and suspended their general manager indefinitely.
Now, this is the biggest fine in NASCAR history, according to Nate Ryan. He's a senior motorsports reporter for USA Today Sports. He joins us from Charlotte, N.C. Hey there, Nate.
NATE RYAN: Hi, Audie. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So first, talk us through the basics. What were they trying to accomplish, and what happened?
RYAN: Well, essentially, they were trying to manipulate the results of the race, Audie, to get Martin Truex Jr., their driver, into the chase for the Sprint Cup, which is the championship playoff. There was one wild-card spot available. Clint Bowyer, his teammate, was already in the championship. So he could have a bad result in that race, and still qualify. So Michael Waltrip Racing essentially had its two drivers in a position where they could perform in lesser ways in order to get Martin Truex Jr. into that wild-card spot.
CORNISH: And the way that people figured this out was to listen to the radio chatter from the cars, right?
RYAN: Correct. What's unusual about NASCAR is that all of the drivers and teams communicate on an analog channel, which all of the fans have access to, all of the media have access to, NASCAR has access to. And in the case of Clint Bowyer, there were some suspicious radio chatter - it was in code - which basically caused fans and media to wonder, you know, was Michael Waltrip Racing trying to manipulate the results of this race, and have their drivers essentially take a fall in the closing laps in order to get Martin Truex Jr., their third teammate, into the chase?
CORNISH: So here's a little snippet of some of that code you were talking about. This is some chatter between the crew chief, Brian Pattie, and this driver, Bowyer.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CHATTER)
CORNISH: So he says it's hot in there. Itch it. And then right after that, the car spins. What happened?
RYAN: Well, Clint Bowyer claims that it was an unintentional spin, that he just lost control. But if you look at the video, even for a casual NASCAR fan, I think it looks rather damning; that he intentionally is spinning the wheel out of control in a manner that will spin the car, and bring out the caution flag. Now, Bowyer also claimed in the aftermath of this that he had poison oak on his arm, and that that was...
RYAN: ...what his crew chief, Brian Pattie, was referring to; that he had an itch. But of course, well, that seems a little bit strange and suspicious, doesn't it?
CORNISH: Now, how rare is a punishment this big?
RYAN: It's rare. I think the reason that we saw such an unprecedented display of discipline, Audie, is because - you know, NASCAR is a sport that's always been beset by conspiracy theories, whether it's oversized engines or curiously timed caution flags that help certain drivers. But rarely has there been such a preponderance of tangible evidence. It's never been so overt that a conspiracy appeared to be unfolding right in front of everyone's eyes. And I think that's why NASCAR elected to take such action, in this case.
CORNISH: Nate Ryan, how are the fans feeling about all this?
RYAN: They're very angry, Audie. They were lighting up Twitter and Facebook from 11 o'clock Saturday night on, and it's been incessant since then. And NASCAR is monitoring that. They have this new fan and media engagement center, where they're able to track in real time what fans are saying about their sport; and they prepare reports after every race. And I'm sure that that played a role, and might have been the impetus for NASCAR reacting so quickly and so harshly, in this instance.
I think, though, the big takeaway is that there's a little bit of a void in the penalty here for NASCAR, in that they didn't do anything to offer assurances that this won't happen again. Essentially, what I thought was the message they delivered is, here's a really big penalty we're going to impose on teams that attempt to manipulate or orchestrate races this way. But it's going to be solely through deterrence that we're asking you not to do it again. They didn't offer any assurances that they would be able to police or monitor this in a better way next time, and perhaps stamp out such team orders coming into play in the future.
CORNISH: Nate Ryan - he's senior motorsports reporter for USA Today Sports. Nate, thanks so much for explaining it.
RYAN: It's my pleasure, Audie. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.