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.
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, 22.214.171.124 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.