The best two drivers all season are tied at the top of the standings with three races to go, almost exactly what NASCAR might have said it needed after leaving Richmond seven weeks ago.The battle for the championship between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, which visits Fort Worth this week, could overshadow the embarrassment the top level of stock-car racing suffered in the last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, when Michael Waltrip Racing ordered one of its drivers to cause a caution.The pit stops and restart that followed resulted in Ryan Newman losing what looked like a sure win, MWR driver Michael Truex Jr. making the sport’s version of the playoffs and four-time champion Jeff Gordon missing.Clint Bowyer said he didn’t do it on purpose, but NASCAR found that he had been told to. As a result, NASCAR booted Truex from the Chase, put Gordon in as a makeup, and docked Bowyer points and fined MWR.But it seems so long ago now.“I think it is kind of a distant thought now, for most,” Johnson said last week after a test session at Texas Motor Speedway, where the AAA Texas 500 is scheduled to run at 2 p.m. Sunday. “I hope, and think, we as a sport learned a lot about what happened and can address this on multiple levels in the future and prevent it and recognize it and not have it happen again.“The positive thing through it all is that there’s been one heck of a battle for the points lead. The racing and the tight points battle we’ve had has really come through all of that, and there’s a very good outlook for our 2013 season when you reflect back on it when the year’s over.”In the seven weeks since Richmond, Johnson and Kenseth have each won Chase races. Two non-playoff drivers, Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski, have also won. Gordon, coming off his first win of the year last week at Martinsville, is making a charge, with Kevin Harvick one point behind him.“You’re going to go through rough patches and take some hits, whether you’re a competitor or whether you’re a sport,” Gordon said. “That was certainly one of them. Ever since, the focus has been on the competition and what’s happening on the track. I feel like every week, that builds.“Certainly for me, ever since Chicago, the focus has solely been on what’s happening on the track.”Ironically, Gordon’s very presence near the top of the standings is a reminder of Richmond. His inclusion in the Chase field is the part of the fallout, as is Bowyer’s slow start and the pull-out of longtime MWR sponsor NAPA.“I think that it was very tough for that team,” ESPN race analyst Dale Jarrett said. “I stated that I thought it would keep them from having an opportunity to win the championship. It’s not something you can set aside, because you’re going to get those questions, about what’s on your mind, and what we perceive now. That went on for two or three weeks with different things happening — one of the sponsors pulling out; that was a big money hit to that team.“Now that things are a little more back to normal, you see it in the last two or three weeks, their performance has been a little bit better. But it obviously cost them a shot at a championship.”It proved to be a learning experience for NASCAR and the teams, the majority of which, of course, have no record of manipulating a race result. That’s not to say other races have not been influenced by a surprise engine failure now and then or some unspotted debris on the track.But the teams and drivers took the Richmond lesson for what it was worth.“I think that everybody would probably do it a little bit different,” Harvick said. “There’s definitely been some adjustments with rules. There’s been adjustments with spotters and radios.“That was a pretty big message delivered from NASCAR to the team. I think as a sport, you know where you stand with the sanctioning body, and you move on.”And this week, that’s Fort Worth.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez