- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) - Jeff Gordon said he finds it “a little fishy” that Paul Menard spun out at Richmond last weekend, forcing a caution that helped teammate Kevin Harvick win the race. He also wondered if Richard Childress Racing ordered Menard to do it.

Gordon was leading Harvick in Saturday night’s race when Menard spun with 16 laps to go. The drivers pitted during the ensuing caution, and Harvick was first out of the pits to take the lead. He pulled away on the restart four laps later.

Gordon discussed the incident Thursday as NASCAR prepares for the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season, which tied him with Kyle Busch for the top seed in the Chase. It was a big swing for Gordon, who was denied his fourth victory and trails the leaders by three points for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“If any of that is true of what’s being speculated right now, all I can say is I’ve lost a lot of respect for Paul Menard if that’s the case,” Gordon said during a media tour that included the 12 Chase drivers.

“I don’t want to blame him for any of that if it’s not true. He might have just lost it off of turn four and the caution came out. But when you listen to the radio, and I’ve had other people translate it to me, it sounds a little fishy.”

Gordon said he hasn’t heard the radio transmission. Chatter between Menard and his team that was played this week on Speed Channel indicated there was a moment the group switched to an encrypted frequency before Menard spun out.

A spokesman for RCR said the organization had no comment. Harvick said he was told a flat tire caused Menard to spin out.

“Everything that I’ve heard about the situation was the right rear tire was down to the cords,” Harvick said. “I guess I wish I could have brought it with me. Obviously when a situation like that happens, that’s going to be the first thing that people migrate to.

“That’s really all I know about the whole thing. I asked what the deal was and that was the answer I received.”

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said officials have no evidence Menard or RCR did anything suspicious.

“We haven’t seen or heard anything that would indicate (Menard) did anything inappropriate in Richmond,” Tharp said. “We watch closely the activity in each event all season long to maintain a fair and even event for all competitors. We naturally will do the same for the balance of the season.”

The questions raised by Gordon are the latest sideshow to what is expected to be the most competitive Chase to date. Earlier in the race, five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson intentionally wrecked Kurt Busch and the two traded barbs afterward. It led to a tense postrace news conference and scrutiny of Busch for losing his cool.

Meanwhile, two-time champion Tony Stewart said there are only seven real title contenders. The five he doesn’t think have a chance? Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and, most surprisingly, himself.

There’s always the potential for something explosive to happen between co-points leaders Kyle Busch and Harvick, who openly dislike each other. Both were on probation this season for an altercation at Darlington. And now Harvick, who loves to be in the center of controversy, has been caught up in the Gordon versus RCR dustup.

Asked about the Menard caution, Harvick typically shifted it right back to Gordon and the Hendrick Motorsports organization.

“There’s 10 times during the race that you could say that the Hendrick cars were spinning people out or doing what they had to do to keep Dale Jr. on the lead lap,” Harvick said. “You could make the same allegations throughout the whole race that they were trying to help him do the same thing, stay in the lead lap and get in the Chase.”

Gordon denied that HMS has ever used team orders in any situation or to help Earnhardt.

“When has that ever happened? We’ve never done anything to try to get Junior on the lead lap, if he was down a lap, to my knowledge,” Gordon said. “I’ve never spun out. I’ve never been told to spin out or brought out a caution that changed the entire (race). If I am a teammate to someone that’s going for the championship, I would make it a little more challenging for them if it comes down for the championship, to a certain degree.

“But I am always one that says let the race be decided the way it needs to be decided.”

Team owner Jack Roush, who once had five drivers in the Chase field, angrily denied in the first few years of the Chase that his organization would manipulate races.

“I don’t even want to think about it happening because I pride myself on racing the guys and everybody racing everybody fair,” Stewart said. “I hope we never have to worry about that.”

“I think we all hope that those kinds of things really don’t happen,” Matt Kenseth added. “I’ve had teammates in the past help me, as far as leading a lap and passing them easier, things like that. But certainly nothing like that.”

Harvick disagreed and pointed specifically to last year’s season finale at Homestead, when he was racing Hamlin and Johnson for the championship. He said Hamlin teammate Kyle Busch and Johnson teammate Mark Martin consistently made it difficult for him on the race track.

“It always comes up. It came up last year with myself and Kyle. I felt like he was doing what he had to do and Mark was doing what he had to do to help Jimmie,” Harvick said. “Guys, you feel like they race you different than they have all year just because of their teammates racing for the championship. It’s not going to be anything different this year.

“It’s always going to be a constant debate of the way it all goes down and who it is. You could argue it over every year.”

Gordon said NASCAR doesn’t want it to play out that way, and doesn’t think teams who participate in the practice will still be in the running for the title at the end of the year.

“I know NASCAR doesn’t want races and championships to be decided in that form and I put my faith in them that they’ll try to control those situations,” Gordon said. “Whatever happened, whatever was intentional, unintentional … we can’t control that. It doesn’t affect what we’re going to be doing over the next 10 weeks. If we get beat by three points, I’ll be a little disappointed.”

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