With stirring comebacks, high drama and some of the sport's biggest names precariously toeing the line of qualifying for the Chase, NASCAR had everything it could ask for in its regular season finale Saturday night.
However, instead of rejoicing in the aftermath of what otherwise was a noteworthy event and celebrating its ballyhooed 10-race Chase, which begins Sunday, NASCAR is clouded by an incident that threatens its credibility.
Seven laps from the finish Clint Bowyer looped his Toyota exiting Turn 4 in what appeared to be a harmless incident.
Almost immediately, however, evidence began piling up that the spin was part of a calculated attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to jerry-rig the Chase and ensure Martin Truex Jr. earned a coveted spot via the second wild card. The team even went so far to have its third MWR car -- driven by Brian Vickers -- make laps 30-50 mph slower than any car running better than 25th and with a few laps remaining was inexplicably called to pit road under green-flag conditions.
Whether this was merely a coincidence or part of larger plot schemed in the shadows, MWR accomplished its objective as both Bowyer and Truex are now in the Chase.
The deception and circumstantial evidence has created a conspiracy unlike any other in recent NASCAR history. Judging by the public reaction, it would seem MWR is the most nefarious to ever step foot in a Sprint Cup garage. While that may be taking the outrage to the extreme, there is no denying that the team's actions at the very least fall outside the guidelines of good sportsmanship.
The next subplot in this drama is what, if anything, NASCAR does in the form of punishment.
Officials released a statement Sunday saying they were investigating, but that is standard operating procedure as all races are reviewed before results are finalized. Maybe NASCAR sees the video of Bowyer being informed Ryan Newman was winning and uses reasonable deduction to determine crew chief Brian Pattie used secret code to tell his driver to take a dive.
It would seem the natural recourse would be to issue some sort of penalties to those involved.
NASCAR throwing Bowyer or Truex out of the Chase and replacing them with Newman and Jeff Gordon -- the two most affected by the actions of MWR -- is not sensible. As the sanctioning body frequently tells its participants, it would prefer to govern less, not more ... and by doing so a Pandora's Box would be opened that is best left closed.
The most likely course of action is a points penalty along with a monetary fine somewhere in the six figures. Is there a reasonable amount that equates to a team having one of its cars eligible to compete for a championship while Newman and Gordon are mere Chase bystanders?
What sanctions could NASCAR inflict that would fit the infraction without going overboard? Let's remember this isn't the first time a team has tried to game the system in their favor in the deciding race before the Chase.
A year ago, Denny Hamlin stopped on pit road to concede a position and the accompanying point to teammate Kyle Busch. The year before, in similar circumstances to Saturday night, Paul Menard spun to bring out a caution after curious radio chatter with his team. This greatly aided teammate Kevin Harvick and allowed him to claim the win.
In neither case did NASCAR intervene and hand out penalties. Then again neither violation was as egregious offense as the one just enacted leading directly to a pair of drivers missing the playoffs.
It's the quandary NASCAR now finds itself. Doing nothing is not an option, but what constitutes an appropriate penalty remains unclear.