Ryan: Harvick controversy prompts easy question with no easy answers

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Did Kevin Harvick intentionally cause the caution flag that effectively ended Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500, securing his No. 4 Chevrolet’s third-round berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

That was the primary question facing NASCAR officials Monday, and it seems relatively straightforward.

But there are multiple layers that could make this a much tougher call than merely determining whether Harvick intentionally hung a right into Trevor Bayne’s No. 6 Ford just as an attempt at a green-white-checkered finish began at Talladega Superspeedway.

Despite the protestations of several drivers and teams Sunday that Harvick purposely triggered the 11-car accident, vice chairman Mike Helton said NASCAR could find no wrongdoing. He also added in the next breath that it was possible new evidence could emerge that would incur NASCAR’s wrath.

NASCAR wasn’t planning to make any comment Monday on the Talladega finish while continuing to review all of the available evidence.

That seemingly would include all video replays (including in-car cameras), radio transmissions (was Harvick told Bayne was on his outside on the final restart?) and downloadable data (such as EFI throttle traces) that might illuminate how Harvick’s acceleration and speed in the two attempts at ending the race under green (only the latter was deemed official).

The last time a driver’s actions were called under such scrutiny was the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff race Sept. 7, 2013 at Richmond International Raceway, where a suspicious spin by Clint Bowyer and a curiously timed pit stop by Brian Vickers helped qualify Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the Chase.

NASCAR nullified those results 48 hours later, kicking Truex out of the Chase with the stiffest punishment in history after determining that MWR had manipulated the finish.

The decision meant a Chase berth for Ryan Newman, who also was the last driver knocked out of advancing to the third round Sunday because he was three points behind Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Newman was one of several who claimed Harvick deliberately sparked the crash, and the Richard Childress Racing driver heavily was invested in the consequences.

If the yellow hadn’t waved, there seemed a good chance Harvick’s ailing car likely would have finished far lower than 15th – possibly in 27th as the last car on the lead lap. The resultant loss of points would have eliminated Harvick from the Chase and left Newman’s title bid alive.

As with every Sprint Cup race, NASCAR usually waits until Tuesday to make its finishing order official. If it’s determined there was wrongdoing by Harvick, it’s possible the car retroactively could be black-flagged and thus left unscored for the final two laps. That would put Harvick two laps down in 32nd, a 17-point hit that would leave him outside the cutoff for advancing to the third round.

Such punishment would be accompanied by major implications for NASCAR, which has disciplined drivers for intentionally causing cautions in the past (namely, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the March 2004 race at Bristol Motor Speedway). The penalty to MWR led to the departure of NAPA’s $16 million annual sponsorship, setting in motion the chain of events that led to the team’s impending shutdown after the 2015 season.

With Stewart-Haas Racing in the process of finalizing Harvick’s 2016 sponsor lineup (which includes Busch and Jimmy Johns) and with NASCAR and car owners still hammering out the framework for awarding Sprint Cup team licenses next season, a decision on penalizing Harvick seems even more fraught.

And then there are the mixed messages that might be sent by a penalty.

Even if Harvick intentionally slammed into Bayne, how was that different from Joey Logano moving Matt Kenseth for a win the previous week at Kansas Speedway (a maneuver that chairman Brian France said was “quintessential NASCAR”)? What about Newman shoving Kyle Larson aside in the final cutoff race a year ago at Phoenix International Raceway, attaining the point he needed to advance to the championship finale?

Of course, there’s an important distinction in that it’s not illegal to wreck or bump someone for a spot. But it has been deemed illegal to cause caution flags intentionally.

Earnhardt was penalized for admitting he did by purposely spinning in the March 2004 race at Bristol Motor Speedway. There have been instances in which roll-bar padding was tossed on the track by a driver to cause a yellow, spurring garagewide manhunts for the culprit.

Couple that history with everything at stake at Talladega – including the now extinguished championship bid of 12-time most popular driver Earnhardt, who was robbed of a shot at winning when the field was frozen by the final yellow – and Sunday’s most important question again becomes obvious.

Did Harvick intentionally cause the caution flag that effectively ended Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500, securing his No. 4 Chevrolet’s third-round berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

It’s so simple to ask.

It might not be so simple to sort out.