By: Justin Carter
First, the facts: Michael Waltrip Racing cheated in order to secure Martin Truex Jr. a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Clint Bowyer spun out on purpose. Brian Vickers pitted under green on purpose. They got caught. Truex was kicked out of the chase. NAPA left his team.
I’ve been a fan of Martin Truex Jr. since he started racing in the Busch/Nationwide series with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chance 2 team. When I was younger, I would stage fake NASCAR races on my living room floor. I decided that the 31 Siemens diecast I had, a car that Dale Jr. had raced in the Busch series at one time, would become Truex’s car, that it would win every fake race that I ran, because they were my races. The results were always rigged. If I wanted Johnny Benson & Robby Gordon to crash in the turn beside the television set, then I could have Benson & Gordon crash there. If I wanted Truex to win by three laps, then Truex won by three laps.
Time went by & my interest in NASCAR waned. Truex left his first Cup team, DEI, to go race for Michael Waltrip. The results weren’t great at first, with Truex finishing 22nd in points his first season with MWR, but the team slowly started to gel. In 2012, they made the Chase & finished 11th. In 2013, Truex won his first race since 2007. I’d started getting back into NASCAR by then, looking for a way to kill time in the long Summer months of Ohio since I was jobless. I got more & more excited as the season progressed, as Truex moved closer & closer to the Chase.
I was at a sports bar with a few friends the night of the Richmond race, watching Notre Dame take on Michigan while keeping one eye glued to the soundless television across the room, watching the real-time movement of drivers in & out of the Chase. When Bowyer spun, I thought well, maybe this gives Truex a chance. I didn’t think it was fishy, didn’t think that it was part of some team order to help him beat Ryan Newman.
We want to believe that our favorite athletes are indestructible. It’s why, despite the steroid era engulfing baseball for years, I get defensive anytime I hear allegations that Jeff Bagwell didn’t achieve everything on his own. It’s why we vilify Jose Canseco but love Jason Giambi.
NASCAR quickly took fifty points away from Truex, which dropped him out of the Chase.
I’ve been struggling lately to reconcile my admiration of Truex with my moral compass.
If there’s proof an athlete took steroids, I want that athlete out of the record books. Yet, Truex’s team clearly cheated & I feel…annoyed, mostly, at NASCAR.
The difference might be that Truex hasn’t been implicated in the cheating yet. We know Bowyer, Vickers, Waltrip, & the team officials purposefully made moves to change the outcome of the race, but Truex seems like an innocent benefactor of the team’s attempted forgery.
I don’t know. Do we blame the San Francisco Giants for Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s record? I’m sure part of us does, but we place a much deeper blame on the person that directly cheated. In this case, Truex (like the Giants, who rode Bonds to the National League pennant in 2002) benefitted directly from someone else breaking the rules. I should be understanding of this. I should say even if Truex didn’t cheat, his team did & he wouldn’t have made the Chase if they hadn’t.
But then I think back to my living room floor, to all the times Martin Truex Jr. won the Brazoria Texas 500 while his rivals crashed into the sofa. I was manipulating that race in order for Truex to win, wasn’t I? Does that put me on equal footing with Michael Waltrip?
I don’t know how to answer these questions. I want to believe in the innocence of Truex & in the guilt of Michael Waltrip Racing at the same time, but I also don’t want to see Truex & NAPA leave MWR.
In his poem “What Our Dead Do,” Zbigniew Herbert talks about the dead & says that, after the dead do things to look after us, “we imagine immortality for them/ snug as the burrow of a mouse.” I think the line applies equally to our sports heroes, too. They look after us in different ways than the dead, sure, but they still do things for us– they bring us on an emotional rollercoaster. When Truex won this season at Sonoma, I felt the most joy I’d felt (about a NASCAR race) in years. It rivaled the way I felt in 2007 when Truex won Dover. Do I give him a pass because of this? I think I have to. I looked the other way when Brian Cushing was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, & I’ll look the other way when Michael Waltrip Racing cheats to help my favorite driver out because, sometimes in sports, we need to root for our favorites to win, even if the methods they employ to achieve the win are dubious.
Still– I wonder if there’s a level where we wouldn’t tolerate this. Truex is my favorite driver, sure, but he’s far from my favorite athlete. How would I feel if Craig Biggio said I used steroids for my entire career? If Hakeem Olajuwon said the same thing?
I want to believe I’d feel betrayed. I think it all comes down to this– we’re okay with our favorite athletes cheating if it can help them win, but we’re not okay with our athletic heroes, with the players that we grew up with, that taught us about integrity & perseverance, cheating.
If Martin Truex Jr. stands on a podium & says I cheated. I told my teammates to spin out, I’d feel unsettled but ultimately okay. If Craig Biggio did it? I’d fall apart. The difference is in our attitude toward our favorite athletes. We want our heroes pure, for them to be models on which we build our character. We want our favorite athletes at the moment to win, to go out there & win, no matter what it takes.