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The Frontstretch Five: Reasons Why NASCAR Made the Right Call on Hamlin’s Penalty

The Frontstretch Five: Reasons Why NASCAR Made the Right Call on Hamlin’s Penalty

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five reasons why NASCAR made the right call by lowering the hammer on the No. 11 team for a firewall infraction found when they tore down Denny Hamlin‘s car postrace at Indianapolis.

1. It was a blatant attempt to gain a competitive advantage during a race…and Hamlin raced with it.

That’s really the bottom line, though I’ll admit I was surprised by the severity of the penalty. In case you missed it, NASCAR confiscated some block-off plates from the rear section of the firewall on the No. 11 following post race inspection at Indy. On Tuesday, the sanctioning body penalized the team for a P5 infraction under the new-for-2014 penalty system, which carries a mandatory six-week suspension for crew chief Darian Grubb, fines between $75,000 and $125,000 (Grubb was fined $125,000), 50 point penalty for both owner and driver, and probation for six months or until the end of the calendar year. NASCAR can (and did) also take points gained in the race, docking Hamlin and owner JD Gibbs an additional 25 for a total of 75.

Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team earned the distinction of becoming the first recipient of NASCAR's P5-level penalty for unapproved parts found after Sunday's Brickyard 400. Trouble refueling cost him the win -- the penalty now will cost him crew chief Darian Grubb the next six weeks.

Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team earned the distinction of becoming the first recipient of NASCAR’s P5-level penalty for unapproved parts found after Sunday’s Brickyard 400. While trouble refueling cost him the win — the penalty will cost him crew chief Darian Grubb the next six weeks, as teams prepare for The Chase.

A P5 infraction is listed as one that “Approved parts that fail or are improperly installed to fail in their intended use of great importance (e.g.; rear wheel well panels that fail and allow air evacuation in the trunk area; oil box cover that fails and allows air evacuation in the driver compartment; shifter boot cover that fails and allows air evacuation through the floor pan).” This particular infraction was in violation of Sections 12-1, 20-2.1, 20.3.4, 20.3.4.5 of the NASCAR rule book. In this particular case, there were reportedly small spaces left between the plates, which can add up to 30 pounds of downforce, potentially giving a team a huge advantage.

What should be noted here is that this infraction was not one found before practice or even in pre-race inspection and fixed before the race. It was found when Hamlin’s car was torn down after the event, meaning that the team was racing with an illegally altered part, which in turn may have falsely affected the outcome of a points race. Space between firewall plates isn’t something a team is going to overlook if they don’t mean for it to be there, so it was also a blatant attempt to alter the airflow under the car. That’s why the punishment is so severe, and it’s the main reason why NASCAR made the right call. Say all you want about intent, racing an illegal car is not the same as having something that doesn’t look right before practice.

2. It altered a part of the car intended for driver safety.

 The firewall of the car is an integral part of the car’s safety features. As its name suggests, it’s meant to seal the driver’s compartment from flames and/or fumes in case of a fire. Gaining an illegal advantage is never acceptable, but when it could potentially endanger the driver, that’s even worse. A massaged fender or unapproved weight might gain a team a little time on track, but it’s not going to harm the driver. Compromising something like the firewall, roll cage, seat, etc. takes cheating to a whole new level…one that basically says “we want to win this race so much that we’re willing to take a risk with our driver’s health. The trophy means more to us than he does.” Hamlin’s safety could have potentially been compromised for a little downforce. Everybody knows speed is expensive, but no team should be willing to pay that price.

 3. Spingate changed how NASCAR will police the sport.

Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempt to manipulate the outcome of last year’s fall race at Richmond changed how NASCAR looks at the sport going into the Chase. In that case, one car was called to pit road for a nonexistent issue and another driver spun his car intentionally during the race in an attempt to help a third driver improve his chances of a Chase berth. The outcry from fans was widespread, and NASCAR doesn’t want to be at the center of another cheating scandal, especially so close to the start of the new Chase format of which the sanctioning body is so proud. With the less-than-warm welcome the new Chase has received, the last thing NASCAR needs is another cheating scandal to kick it off…and to that end, they sent a strong message to teams.

 4. Joe Gibbs Racing has been pushing the limit for a long time.

Say what you want about the MWR scandal or about Hendrick Motorsports, but JGR has not been without its share of hinky things in recent years. From unapproved overweight oil pans to an odd C-post (that they were not penalized for a few months before Jimmie Johnson and his team received a large penalty for the same thing—which was overturned, perhaps in part because of the discrepancy), to a car in the wall during a celebratory burnout (not unlike the instructions to “crack up” the No. 48 at Talladega a few years back), to magnets under the accelerator, the team has had a lot of questionable incidents, some of which did not draw penalties.

Perhaps the team was due to be chastised by NASCAR for pushing things too far. Perhaps the sanctioning body was making up for a lenient past. Whatever the case, the team hasn’t been as squeaky clean as some would like to think, and it appears that it finally caught up with them. It should send a message to other teams, loud and clear, about what they could stand to lose.

 5. Better now than in the Chase.

Post-race tear-downs are a tricky thing. Other than the race winner (or, occasionally, a team that NASCAR is trying to catch doing something suspect), the cars that get torn down after the race are randomly selected, so it’s possible that something within the car, like the firewall or roll cage, could be altered for several races before it’s noticed by NASCAR, because it’s not in an area that’s inspected thoroughly at any time during a regular race weekend. And for all involved, it’s better that the No. 11 team was caught now, rather than two months from now. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t hurt Hamlin much. Even the point deduction doesn’t hurt his Chase chances; he’ll drop to about 21st, but will remain well within the top-30 cutoff. It may slightly affect his starting position, but overall won’t hurt his title chances (Is this scenario a flaw with the Chase seeding and penalty systems? Perhaps.). NASCAR is saved having to explain why they killed Hamlin’s title hopes, as they did when Clint Bowyer received a major penalty following a post-race infraction at Loudon, then the Chase-opening race. Fans don’t have to wonder if NASCAR dropped the ball.

The last thing NASCAR needs is anything to happen that can bring more criticism to the new Chase, and a large penalty during it could bring some negative attention if fans don’t agree with it. No doubt some will question the severity of this one, even though it’s spot on with the published list of penalties and with the sections of the rule book listed in NASCAR’s release regarding the infraction. The last thing the sanctioning body wants is more bad PR surrounding the Chase, so getting it out of the way now lessens that risk, because the message it sends is strong, and NASCAR has shown they won’t fool around with this type of racing.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

15 comments

  1. TruthInSpending

    Let’s talk serious. The penalties are a joke to those who are locked into the chase, a slap on the wrist. Nothing more.

    Suspending the crew chief for X number of races is also a joke.

    Wanna make an example? Suspend the driver for a couple or a few races. That will get their attention.

    Yeah, sure, the driver may not be aware of the changes/cheats, but it doesn’t matter. It is a team sport. Deprive them of their driver and you’ll quickly end the more serious shenanigans.

  2. Once again a NASCAR penalty is just a joke. Until they start taking away prize money, ALL race points and moving the violator to a last place finishing position – none of the teams will care!

  3. Frankly I’m surprised that Toyota stays in Nascar, given all the hate and bias that they get. Nascar needs Toyota a LOT MORE than Toyota needs Nascar.

    • Yes look how Toyota domination has catapulted the truck series into obscurity. I contend that Dodge took more fans out than Toyota will ever bring in. Toyota leaves NASCAR, one can only hope.

  4. Given which team it was (or wasn’t in this case) the penalties aren’t at all surprising. No one important was affected here. Let’s move along.

  5. Funny isn’t it, that NASCAR is so worried about the chase being affected when they never were before. They know its a freakiing flawed system, too, but as I read on ESPN’s column this morning, they can NEVER retreat from a position – even when they are wrong.

    Since i’m not a fan of any of the drivers of JGR or even Joe Gibbs in general, I’m fine with the penalities. It does make you wonder though how long they have had this particular modification in place.

  6. Hamlin got 42 points and $307 thousand at Indy. Until NA$CAR takes those also, the penalties are a joke!! P5 & P6 penalties should remover previous wins for Chase qualification. Let’s get to work
    RTA!

  7. In a couple of ways, NASCAR blew this call on Hamlin’s penalties. If NASCAR had of moved Hamlin from his 3rd place finish and repositioned him in 43rd, and if NASCAR had of taken away his chase qualification, the penalties would have had a better effect on JGR. With allowing the 11 team to keep the qualifier for the chase, these penalties mean very little. Also, the crew chief suspensions area joke. Gibbs will have Grubb in a motor home outside the track, and Grubb will still be in full contact with the team. That was what Hendrick did when Knaus was suspended in 2007 after Sonoma. What should have been done was a full policing of the team and their activities with contacting the suspended crew chief. If the team got caught, or the crew chief was caught contacting his team anytime during his suspension, the team should have to pack up and leave, thus forfeiting that race, and the team should have to sit out all the remaining races of the crew chief’s suspension. That would drive the point home of what “suspension” means.

    With Edwards supposed to be heading to Phony Motorsports, I wonder if he is beginning to have second thoughts. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the septic tank!

  8. Oh yeah, Spingate again……cheating, manipulation……..

    What’s nascar doing with those yellow flags?

  9. With the new win and your in chase deal, I still feel that we have created a two class system. Those locked in with a win can cheat and try to sneak in another win or two (for bonus chase points) with little care about points penalties. Those without a win can’t afford any points penalties so they have to stick to the straight and narrow. To me, that’s the real issue here.

  10. Isn’t gaining competitive advantage what racing is all about. The whole generic car ideal seems to me to be the antithesis of what auto racing is all about. While this was obvious cheating that compromised the driver’s safety, I am still left with the nagging feeling that innovation, any innovation is frowned upon by KITCAR.

    • I agree with you to a point. But in your opinion, in this case, was there any innovation involved at all?

      • In this case I don’t think so. To me the cheating/innovation line is crossed when driver safety is compromised even slightly. But a better performing non NASCAR approved piston, isn’t that part of racing historically. Eventually everybody catches on and maybe we get a better piston.