Bowyer headed for appeal in scandal that has spoiled NASCAR's Chase

Give Clint Bowyer credit for deftly navigating his way through what was likely the worst week of his NASCAR career.

Riding high following his win in the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Bowyer had the wind knocked out of him 72 hours later when NASCAR ruled the car he drove to victory at New Hampshire was illegal. The decision carried significant sanctions that essentially eliminated Bowyer from title contention, and sent him into Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway — arguably his weakest of the 10 Chase tracks — as the central figure in a major scandal.

Bowyer faced his critics head-on, presented a passionate defense of his Richard Childress Racing team, then tried to go about salvaging his season.

Only the controversy raged around him and he sputtered in Sunday's race to a 25th-place finish that dropped him 235 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

His last hope comes Wednesday in an appeal before a three-member panel. Richard Childress Racing will ask for the penalties to be overturned and for Bowyer's 150 points be restored.

No matter how the panel rules, nobody will emerge the victor from a controversy that's spoiled the start of NASCAR's 10-race title Chase.

Everyone left New Hampshire fairly pleased with the opening race in the Chase, which is NASCAR's attempt to challenge the NFL for attention. Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson had a bad day, the race had an exciting finish and a fresh new winner emerged in Bowyer, who snapped an 88-race winless streak and jumped from 12th to second in the standings.

It was a Hollywood-like opening and came at a critical time for NASCAR, which is praying a competitive Chase will stop the slide in attendance and television ratings and stave off potential offseason changes to the title-deciding format.

It all began to unravel just a day later. The Associated Press reported Bowyer's car from the Sept. 11 race at Richmond came dangerously close to failing inspection, and then came word there was a potential problem with his New Hampshire car.

NASCAR announced last Wednesday that the No. 33 Chevrolet failed an inspection back at its research and development center, and levied the championship-crippling penalties to Bowyer's team.

On one hand, the dramatics that have followed the ruling have livened up the sport.

Team owner Richard Childress insisted the tow truck that pushed Bowyer to Victory Lane at New Hampshire caused the damage that made the car fail inspection, a theory NASCAR has dismissed. Points leader Denny Hamlin accused the RCR organization of playing loose with the rules for week. RCR driver Kevin Harvick defended the team by intentionally wrecking Hamlin in a practice session at Dover.

NASCAR suddenly had a real-life soap opera on its hands, and the entire garage eagerly followed each twist and turn over the three days at Dover.

But entertainment aside, the issue surrounding Bowyer's car has been a public relations disaster for NASCAR.

Fans already suspect of NASCAR didn't understand how Bowyer's car could have passed a post-race inspection at New Hampshire, only to be ruled illegal three days later. And, if its possible to fail a more detailed inspection back at R&D, then why aren't all the cars seized after every race? Or, at the very least, all of the Chase cars?

If NASCAR really had warned RCR about building cars dangerously close to the templates, as Hamlin alleges, why didn't NASCAR publicize that information before the AP reported on Bowyer's Richmond warning?

Just as damning for NASCAR is that two Hendrick Motorsports cars came close to failing inspection after Dover last September, but Johnson and Mark Martin were let off with a warning. Why didn't the most powerful team in NASCAR receive the same treatment as RCR?

It makes no difference that aside from NASCAR's lack of transparency — an decades-old problem with the privately-owned organization — there's a plausible explanation for every conspiracy theory: The at-track inspections are limited and NASCAR does a more thorough examination at the R&D center, NASCAR officials don't have the resources or see a reason to seize all 12 Chase cars, and the Hendrick cars corrected their issue after last year's warning, something NASCAR claims RCR did not do after the Richmond race.

Still, RCR raises reasonable doubt behind a "why would we be so stupid?" defense. Everyone agrees that, after Richmond, RCR was told its New Hampshire car would be inspected. So Childress and Bowyer have publicly stated only a fool would bring an illegal car to the track knowing NASCAR was going to tear it apart.

It's enough to cloud the entire situation and leave outsiders unsure of whom to trust.

Since Wednesday's appeal is closed to the public, and NASCAR refuses to reveal many details about the proceedings, the decision of the appeals committee won't matter much in the court of public opinion.

To many, Bowyer has been dealt a terrific injustice by big, bad NASCAR.

It makes no difference that NASCAR, which desperately needs the attention on the track and on its Chase, had absolutely nothing to gain by picking on Bowyer.