The feel good story of Richard Childress Racing and its turnaround season was doused with a big bucket of cold water on Wednesday when NASCAR levied one of the biggest penalties in the sport's history against Clint Bowyer and his New Hampshire race winning team.
Bowyer had rocketed from the last berth in the twelve driver field to second only 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin after he originally took the checkered flag in Sunday's Chase opener. After Wednesday's penalty he fell to the basement of the playoff field.
NASCAR had taken the car Bowyer drove to a sixth place finish in the regular season finale at Richmond two weeks ago to its Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. with some concerns on the tolerances found in its post race inspection. The Childress team met with NASCAR earlier this week to discuss those findings, which were deemed not illegal but close enough to warrant "a warning," as NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said.
That practice is not unusual as NASCAR regularly discusses similar issues with teams when they are close to working outside the realm of the rules. Hendrick Motorsports found itself in the same situation with the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon last year.
But the difference in the Bowyer saga was the warnings given by NASCAR were not addressed.
"Hendrick immediately fixed the problem," Pemberton said. "The 33 did not."
It's not known whether what NASCAR found to be illegal after New Hampshire was in the exact same area of the Richmond concerns.
What is clear is the sanctioning body's statement that it will not tolerate teams messing with the Sprint Cup car in any capacity.
Bowyer was at a NASCAR Hall of Fame appearance in Charlotte on Wednesday and prior to the official word of penalties being handed down claimed ignorance of the entire situation.
"I have no idea," Bowyer said. "I show up on Friday, I bring my helmet, I bring my HANS and I get in the car. Anything that happens from Sunday to Friday, I don't know.
"Aside from that, I don't know what's going on. It would be a shame if something was to happen, but it's part of the sport."
While Bowyer shrugging off the irregularities as part of the sport may sound as if cheating is an accepted part of stock car racing, NASCAR would seem to take issue.
The bigger question is why teams continue to try and get away with cheating especially in a time when there's a heightened sense of scrutiny in the garage area. And to try and massage things as far as the RCR team did at the start of the playoff season seems especially thoughtless.
Since the beginning of the season the resurgence of the Childress fleet has captured the imagination and attention of NASCAR fans. After a dismal 2009, RCR completely overhauled its operation with the result sending Bowyer and teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton into the Chase.
Bowyer wrote the ultimate underdog story last week as the final guy into the Chase going on to take the checkered flag in a dramatic opening race of the playoff run.
His name is still on the trophy but there is a major asterisk next to it - one that most likely cost him any chance at winning a Sprint Cup title.