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Ben Smith

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NASCAR at crossroads

– Brian France gets public perception the way a carnivore gets animal protein. It goes south on him, he goes into dog-on-a-pork-chop mode.

And so the Kremlin-like meeting at Chicagoland Speedway the other day, with France, the chairman of NASCAR, and other NASCAR honchos calling in Sprint Cup drivers, crew chiefs and team owners for what can only be characterized as a come-to-Jesus meeting. The shenanigans at Richmond a week ago, in which a number of drivers and crews blatantly tried to fix who did and who didn’t get into the Chase, were to stop immediately. This game will be on the level, NASCAR said, or someone will be going upside someone’s head, at least metaphorically.

“NASCAR requires its competitors to race at 100 percent of their ability with the goal of achieving their best possible finishing position in an event,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said, quoting a new, and one would think unnecessary, rule. “Any competitor who takes action with the intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event or encourages, persuades or induces others to artificially alter the finishing position of the event shall be subject to a penalty from NASCAR.”

And good on NASCAR for that. Nothing, after all, will chase away fans and sponsors faster than the perception that the game is rigged. France, Helton et al. understand this implicitly – just as they understand that their sport has been susceptible to these sorts of accusations in the past.

The sport grew up hard and not especially concerned with legalities, and that legacy echoes down to this day. “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” after all, is not just something clever some good ol’ boy once said; it’s a cultural touchstone in a sport whose appeal has always sprung, at least partly, from the way it occasionally throws a smirk and a wink at the more straight-laced world.

Not for nothing has more than one observer lightheartedly compared NASCAR’s current product with professional wrestling. And that is the last thing you want to hear when you run the most successful motorsports empire in American history, and have witnessed its appeal slipping for nearly the last decade.

And so the hammer comes down, in no uncertain terms. And so NASCAR does what it must to avoid an even greater calamity than the occasional Vince McMahon joke: Comparisons to Formula One.

Which a decade ago was rife with the same sort of rigged deal-cutting that surfaced in Richmond.

Which, a decade ago, became an absolute clown show when Rubens Barrichello, on orders from Ferrari chief Jean Todt, let teammate Michael Schumacher pass him in the Austrian Grand Prix as Schumacher pursued yet another F1 title.

After which Schumacher disgraced the most hallowed venue in motorsports by returning the favor at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, slowing down on the last lap so Barrichello could catch him at the finish line.

Now close your eyes and envision Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers slowing down in the final laps at Richmond to help Joey Logano knock Jeff Gordon out of contention, thereby helping teammate Martin Truex Jr. Or David Gilliland getting out of the throttle and allowing Logano to pass him and pick up a few more precious Chase points.

Not much difference there, right?

And how cold a shudder did that just send down your spine?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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