RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — 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.