Mike Helton discusses Chase-changing penalties

On Monday evening, NASCAR handed down penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing that changed the complexion of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, nearly a week before the start of the Chase, itself. The penalties resulted in Martin Truex Jr. being replaced by Ryan Newman in the Chase for the Sprint Cup 12-driver field. NASCAR President Mike Helton discussed the decision process behind the penalty and the actions late in Friday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway by MWR teams and drivers that led to the penalties. Below, is a transcript:

MIKE HELTON: We’re here to talk about NASCAR’s reaction today to Michael Waltrip Racing following the Richmond event this past weekend, and as we typically do following the race in reviewing what might have happened there, we’ve spent the last day and a half or so collecting all the factual information we could, video, audio, timing and scoring information, and what other pieces were available to us.

Today we reviewed all that collectively, a group from NASCAR did that. We invited Michael Waltrip Racing, who accepted that invitation to come to the R & D Center and sit with us to talk about from their perspective what unfolded at Richmond Saturday night, and from all of that, the conclusion is in front of you.

Today we’re announcing that NASCAR is reacting to Michael Waltrip Racing by fining Michael Waltrip, owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, $300,000, suspending Ty Norris indefinitely, and each team of Michael Waltrip Racing will be fined 50 owner points and 50 driver points.

This naturally is a very significant reaction from NASCAR. As multiple car owners have become a very positive integral part of our support, also comes with it, though, responsibility from NASCAR and as well the car owners, to maintain a fair and level playing field.

We’ve discussed, we’ve talked about what-ifs over the years, particularly since the Chase was established, particularly with the evolution of multiple-car teams, and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve not had any occurrences that required NASCAR to step up or step out, as we have had to today.

It’s difficult. It’s not an easy decision to make. Conversations about it were deep. We feel like we researched it extremely well, talked at great length with the folks from Michael Waltrip Racing to try to get to the right spot and make the correct decision, and that’s what we feel like we have done.

So with that, we’ll take questions.

Q. Mike, one thing that kind of strikes out is the fact that Clint Bowyer, who appears to have been the issue that triggered this whole reason for doing this, as far as going into the Chase, seems to have no meaningful penalty. That seems to be kind of surprising, isn’t it?

MIKE HELTON: The reaction from NASCAR is to Michael Waltrip Racing, and every team in his organization that runs, in this case, the Sprint Cup Series.

I’ll have to leave it to you to decide if it’s surprising or not, but our reaction was specifically geared toward reacting to Michael Waltrip Racing collectively.

Cars spin out. We have cautions. There’s a lot of things that happen on the racetrack that people speculate about why it happened or how it happened. Sometimes there’s conclusive evidence. More often than not, though, you don’t know exactly what happened. But the collection of all the information we collected from Saturday night led us to the team-wide reaction as opposed to an individual car.

Q. The reaction is surprising, but in one sense not given all the reaction from the fans about what it means to the integrity of the sport. Are you surprised that given the Chase system something like this has not come about sooner, because you were saying it’s difficult and an occurrence like this is I don’t know how rare, things you’ve seen and to what level?

MIKE HELTON: Well, we hope after today it’s extremely rare. We penalize to ask for it to not happen again. It’s not necessarily a penalty to take it out on somebody, as it’s been presented in the past. It’s a message from the league or the sanctioning body saying you can’t do this and expect us not to react to it.

And that’s what we’re doing today. I don’t know how you define the surprising part of it. Others will — everybody will make up their own decision as to the level of surprising on Saturday night and the level of surprises from how we may have reacted to it. Our responsibility is to collect the facts the best we can and make our decision based on facts that’s good and sound and solid for the garage area, the fairness on the racetrack across the board, and for the future of the sport.

Q. When you guys came down from the tower, based on the comment that John gave to Jeff, you didn’t realize that there was maybe an issue, and then as it went on, this swell became obvious that maybe there was an issue. So I’m wondering, one, when did NASCAR become aware that there was a problem, and what evidence did you use to determine? Was it the ESPN footage and the in-car audio? And you said that it was a team penalty, it wasn’t an individual car, so was it the 55, the 15 audio? And did you use the ECU of the 15 car? Was it more than just the ESPN footage?

MIKE HELTON: Let me see if I can follow all of that. It’s been a long day, so I may be part brain dead.

First of all, the unfolding of the race in Richmond Saturday night was very exciting. It had a lot of racing action, a lot of stuff going on, and the mathematics around just trying to figure out and keep up with who may or may not be in the Chase I think was spectacular.

The unfolding of the race had nothing in it that we saw that warranted an action from us that we didn’t react to. After the conclusion of the race and while John and his folks in the Cup garage were focused on preparing for inspections and these types of things, it was some time before components of what might have happened surfaced. So it was deep into the night, early into the next morning before we began to sense that there was something more than what we saw on the racetrack occurring.

So as conversations started up again early Sunday morning, the collection of data, information, to get to the balance of your question, I think, began. Conversations with NASCAR inspectors, officials from the control tower, collecting timing and scoring video from ESPN’s coverage, audio, other forms of technology that we can use now to go back and revisit what happened began to all come together. And we spent the biggest part of today reviewing all of that, including reviewing it with Michael Waltrip Racing as part of the fact-finding or the due diligence, if you will, to get to the point to where deciding if we needed to make a decision or not, to start with, and then what that decision would be.

Q. Why is the particular mention of Jeff Gordon and how his race ended not mentioned in this?

MIKE HELTON: Well, because it’s typical for us to look at what occurred, and what react to what occurred. We don’t react to the ripple effect of an occurrence because I don’t think there’s anyway we can reasonably do that. The 50 points across every Michael Waltrip team is — once the decision was made this afternoon, we revert back to the end of the Richmond race, and we take the points total from the 26th race of the 2013 season, apply our reaction, and then go forward. So we run the race, we had an occurrence in it that we reacted to, as usual we apply our reaction to those results, and then we take the next step. In this case it’s going from Richmond, applying our reaction, and then setting the Chase field.

Q. Ryan Newman was saying earlier today that if you guys would have been monitoring radio traffic better, you guys could have stayed on top of this, and it seems evident going back and listening to the chatter, especially on the 55 channel, if you would have heard that maybe during the race, you could have nipped it in the bud. Do you have any plans going forward to address that and add another layer in the scoring tower of let’s stay on top of all the teams’ radio chatter and make sure there’s no shenanigans going on today?

MIKE HELTON: Well, I think if you had a chance to peek into the control tower today and anywhere in the sport actually, but in our case you’re talking about the control tower where we officiate the race, you’ll see a huge amount of technology, more so today than ever, and it’s mindboggling almost, and the amount of timing and scoring information we have access to while the race is going, it evolves daily. It becomes more proficient and more usable and more applicable to officiating the sport every weekend.

We’ve been very clear about advancing technology and what we can used to to better the sport, including bettering the officiating of the sport. We’re all for that.

And so to answer your question, I guess one day there will be a way to scan 43 teams times three or four persons per team and keep up with all that, but that’s not today. I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to assume the responsibility without getting to that level of technology that can help us do that, to monitor a radio channel. I think we rely on what we see happen, and we use every camera that the broadcaster has at the racetrack in our own system to go back and pull up multiple scenes or views that the TV audience may never see to help us make decisions.

Timing and scoring today is the most sophisticated it’s ever been in our sport, and it will continue to become more so, and there’ll be additional technologies that we apply rapidly along the way in the sport that will give us more clear, quicker answers. We don’t have that in a set of blueprints today. We don’t have that at our fingertips to reasonably expect us to react instantly as the sport is unfolding to radio conversations.

Now, they are radio conversations that we randomly may pick up on that helps us, but we don’t have currently the technology to where we can listen to every one of them and every team member talking.

But I will reiterate or remind us all, including myself, that as technology has advanced, it’s in the rule book that the race teams have to have an analog conversation between drivers and crew chiefs and spotters so that digitally they can’t encrypt their radio signal to where we can’t listen to them. Same thing for the fans. We do it primarily for the fans so that scanners are still able to be part of the fan experience in our sport, to listen to that communication, because that’s a big piece of the entertainment of our sport.

Q. I just want to clarify a couple things. Essentially with what you were talking about the with the spin with the 15 car with Clint, you basically said that you didn’t have conclusive evidence that he spun intentionally. You mentioned cars spin all the time; is that correct, that you don’t have conclusive evidence that that was an intentional spin; is that correct? Did I understand you?

MIKE HELTON: There’s not conclusive evidence that the 15 spin was intentional. There’s a lot of chatter, there’s the video that shows a car spinning, but we didn’t see anything conclusive that that was intentional.

Q. And my question also to follow up is there were questions about the 55 and the 15 pitting, giving up position at the end of the race. Devil’s advocate can say sometimes that happens, so you kind of explained not being able to conclusively determine if one car spun in a possible normal situation or a little bit different situation but a situation where cars sometimes hit pit road at the end, how do you come to these type of penalties when I guess conclusively you’re not proving the car spun, and these are kind of normal — can be late race normal situations with cars pitting?

MIKE HELTON: Let me answer it and see if I get close to where you want the answer, or if I get close to your question.

The preponderance of things that happened by Michael Waltrip Racing Saturday night, the most clear was the direction that the 55 driver was given and the confusion around it, and then the conversation following that occurrence is the most clear part of that preponderance. Does that make sense? Does that help you? That’s the most clear piece of what we found through looking at all of the detail that led us to make the conclusion.

Q. So that was the smoking gun?

MIKE HELTON: That’s the most clear piece of evidence.

Q. Is there an appeal process, and will that appeal process be expedited?

MIKE HELTON: There is an appeal process, which I think everybody is fully aware of. It’s in the hands of Michael Waltrip Racing as to whether that’s triggered and what happens after that.

Q. You’ve answered a lot of the questions, but one question I still have is did Michael Waltrip Racing in this review process, did they ever admit any wrongdoing whatsoever?

MIKE HELTON: Let me answer it this way: Ty confirmed the conversation that most everybody in this room has heard over the radio with the 55 driver.

Q. Mike, can you just address the broader credibility issue with NASCAR? Is that given all the talk from fans and media in the last day, how much did that weigh the credibility of the sport?

MIKE HELTON: Well, I think the first thing is all of us to remind ourselves, it’s a sport. It has a tremendous amount of fun to it. Occasionally, and particularly our role, is to regulate the sport and police it and officiate it so that everybody has got a reasonable playing field to participate in. So we have days like today that we run across and have challenges that our role is to react to, and this is one of those days.

Every fan that is engaged in conversation, it’s great. Now, the topic may not be. It’s not the topic we’d like for it to necessarily be. But we get the fact that there are going to be days like today where we’re having to make a decision to react to something that didn’t go right to the balance of the rest of the garage area, and that’s what today is. It’s difficult. It was a tough conversation with Michael Waltrip Racing and its members. It was difficult as a conversation internally because we all wanted to be sure we made the right steps and did the right thing.

But we’ll all go to Chicago. We’ll practice, we’ll qualify, we’ll race, and we’ll get through this.

As far as the credibility of the sport, NASCAR has always taken very serious its responsibility to maintain for the most part its credibility. And I say maintain for the most part, because we get the fact that that’s subjective to fans and others in the industry. But that’s why we’re sitting here tonight explaining why we made the decisions we made, in hopes to explain why we did that and to offer up some reasonableness to our credibility.

But I think the biggest thing is to remember it’s a sport and it’s got a lot of fun attached to it. Every now and then it gets out of bounds and we have to bring it back in order to maintain credibility.

Q. How did you arrive at the $300,000 amount, and do you think that that’s enough to get their attention going forward? Did you not find the crew chiefs culpable and is that why they were not included as far as suspension goes?

MIKE HELTON: They’re included as probation. The $300,000 number is one that we debated for a while, and frankly the uniqueness of this penalty for one thing had us spending a good deal of time debating, and we landed on the 300 for reasons. But I think the biggest thing that we leave here today with is a unique moment because this is the first most — it’s the most major fine in our history when it comes to dollar amount. But it’s also very significant reaction from NASCAR to a race team totally, with the reduction of points to every team, every car in the team, the probation of the drivers and the crew chiefs, or the crew chiefs, and then the suspension of a very significant member of that organization indefinitely.

We looked at it more as a whole package, not individually, but it’s the package around it that we concluded on.

Q. A lot of people would say that the two victims kind of in all this were Newman and Gordon. Newman by circumstances of you penalizing MWR gets in. After that effect was there any sort of consideration of trying to figure out a way that you somehow could get Gordon in? Was that discussed, because here he seems to be a guy that was also a victim of what happened.

MIKE HELTON: The way we go about these is we look at the incident and only the incident because we know from experience that if you try to look at the ripple effect of an incident, you can’t cover all those bases. You can’t ever come up with a conclusion that is equitable and credible across the board. So we simply look at the incident and react to the incident, and whatever our reaction may create that has a ripple effect to it, as well, is what it is.

But our focus is around the incident and what we were going to do to react around it, not the ripple effect of the incident or the ripple effect of our reaction.

Q. Who actually makes this decision? How is it arrived at? Is it you, Robin and John? Is Brian in it? Is it a whole group of people? Who picks the numbers and who ultimately says yes, this is what we’re doing?

MIKE HELTON: Well, this was, as we talked about earlier, a situation we spent a good deal of time on, and as we go forward, as we’ve talked about, our ability to use technology to offer up factual information for us to make our decision naturally includes more people. This room was pretty busy today, and it’s a pretty good-sized room, not quite as crowded as it is right now, but it had a lot of people weighing in on how to reach this conclusion, and it’s been several hours.

So we’re not going to get into who all did what, but it’s a NASCAR collective effort, and there’s more people in that decision making process today than there’s ever been.

Q. A minute or two ago you mentioned you wanted to stop the trend in regards to this penalty, and I just want to make sure –

MIKE HELTON: I didn’t say we needed to stop the trend now. I said we have a track record; if there is a trend we can advance our reaction until we stop the trend.

Q. Maybe I heard it wrong, but let me ask it this way: Did you feel like a trend was following, and I ask that because two years ago was the incident with the 27 car and there were questions about it spinning to create a caution at the Richmond September race that helped the 29 car win. That would be two events in three years in that particular Chase race, and I just wondered if that was being –

MIKE HELTON: Are you asking if we thought Saturday night was a trend? No, we simply looked at Saturday night as Saturday Richmond 2013.

– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR

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Tags: Chase For The Sprint Cup Michael Waltrip Racing NASCAR Richmond International Raceway

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