Race Weekend Central

What’s the Call: Are NASCAR’s Penalties Against Jeff Gordon & Jimmie Johnson’s Teams Too Severe?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s What’s the Call? Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Earlier this week, NASCAR came down hard on the No. 24 and No. 48 teams for failing pre-race inspection at Infineon Raceway. Due to fenders that fell outside Car of Tomorrow specifications, the following penalties were given out:

  • Crew chiefs Chad Knaus (No. 48) and Steve LeTarte (No. 24) were suspended six weeks and fined $100,000

  • Both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lost 100 driver points

  • Both teams lost 100 car owner points

  • Knaus and LeTarte were placed on probation for the rest of the season

Without question, these are some of the toughest consequences given out in recent NASCAR history. With that in mind, did the sport come down too hard on this one? Or did both teams get exactly what they deserved for breaking the rules?

NASCAR: Barney Fife and Roscoe All Rolled Into One

I bet Gordon is glad he hopped on that plane and left his wife and 24-hour-old daughter this past weekend to fly to Sonoma. In hindsight, he could have easily let Mark Martin push his car through tech inspection in time to receive Hendrick Motorsports 100-point fine, $100,000 invoice, and Steve LeTarte’s six-week holiday.

Since when did NASCAR become Roscoe P. Coltrane, issuing ridiculously inflated citations for racers simply trying to do their job? Gordon’s team didn’t get caught with a big engine, doctored tires, illegal fuel or God forbid, duct tape by the oil tank. Instead, they had massaged the left-front fenders of their DuPont Chevrolet a little too much, in an area they were once permitted to actually have some sort of input into their car.

Nope, Gordon’s team guessed wrong, as did teammate Johnson and the crew of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. Now, the two most dominant drivers this season are entering the “meat” of the summer schedule without their crew chiefs. While most people that do not have a No. 24 or No. 48 sticker on their cars agree they should all be shipped off to some long-forgotten Eastern Bloc gulag for their transgressions, I’m a little more forgiving. To me, this is yet another example of NASCAR issuing the death penalty… for shoplifting.

Come back in time with me as we drop the pretense and remember the roots of what NASCAR was built on: Moonshiners running illegal whiskey, trying to outfox the revenuers and federal agents in hot pursuit. In essence, that’s what’s been happening in the NASCAR garage ever since it opened in 1948: mechanics building cars to the cutting edge, finding every loophole in order to get the most speed they can out of their racecars.

This year, that all changed. What once would have been considered a minor infraction, at the most incurring a relatively small monetary fine and NASCAR placing the team’s trick parts on display for all other competitors to see, warrants a fine that nearly equals disqualification from an event, all in the name of “leveling the playing field.”

And apparently, that now includes cars that had never actually been in competition!

NASCAR’s reasoning seems to be that no one should be allowed to touch or alter the CoT. Um, keep it up guys and no one is going to want to watch the CoT. What is the point of attracting and training the best and brightest minds in engineering if all they’re allowed to do is slap some decals on the side of the cars?

In yet another vain attempt to become like “other” sports, NASCAR is going out of its way to fine and punish what once was considered a primary objective. Mounting bolts on a wing is not a corked bat, and tweaked front fenders are not 22″ human growth hormone/steroid-enhanced biceps. But to the non-NASCAR versed public, that is precisely what this looks to be.

“Wow, being sent home for almost TWO MONTHS, they must have really done it this time!”

Uh, no. They were doing their jobs.

This is unfortunate for the sport, because they cast the sport, sponsors, and competitors in an unflattering light every time this happens. These are no longer good ‘ol boys from modest blue-collar roots; now they’re a collection of untrustworthy never-do-wells trying to skirt the rules to gain an unfair advantage.

Last I checked, this isn’t Pac Man Jones making it rain inside a strip club the night before his meeting with the NFL commissioner. This isn’t Barry Bonds mistaking the “Clear” for flax seed oil. Heck, this isn’t even Kenny Rogers with some yellow gunk on his hand in the World Series. These are competitors working inside the gray area – an area that once existed to allow fabrication, engineering, experimenting and ingenuity among men who may not have what it takes behind the steering wheel, but behind an English Wheel, a wrench or a welder, they’re untouchable.

NASCAR constantly says that it will not let its premier division become a spec series like what IROC or ASA devolved into. But with Johnny Benson testing a spec motor at Martinsville earlier this week, that is exactly what this series is becoming. Along with Rockingham, big-blocks and brand identity, mechanical ingenuity seems as if it too will soon become a thing of the past.

The best part of all this madness is that NASCAR’s opinion seems to change with each passing day. On Wednesday, Series Director John Darby said that had the exact same incident occurred two weeks ago at Michigan with the current car, there would have been NO fine, and NASCAR just would have made both cars re-contour the fenders and run them back through tech.

What set of Wild E. Coyote Acme-supplied blueprints is NASCAR working off of?

First, they institute a rear-end gear rule. Then, you can’t test except at mandatory sessions. Then, you can’t even buy tires. Now, you can’t work on the body of the car? Pretty soon, there will be a mass exodus of unemployed fabricators and body men leaving Mooresville resembling another closed Michigan automotive factory.

Do you really want guys like me being able to work on these cars? I stripped out the drain plug and crankcase on my dirt bike once just trying to change the oil in it. I am clearly unqualified to do much beyond that. With the direction NASCAR is going, and if this writing thing doesn’t pan out, I’m taking my toolbox with me and heading West.

I mean South.

See, I’m already lost with all of this. – Vito Pugliese

NASCAR Penalties Not Too Harsh for Hendrick

There’s no reason to complain about the penalty handed down to the No. 24 and No. 48 teams; in the end, the heavy hand coming down from the NASCAR brass couldn’t be more justified. These teams broke the new golden CoT rule of “don’t mess with our design,” and the sport’s simply doing its duty in ensuring that every organization is following the rules.

When you read the short version of the statement handed down from NASCAR, it clearly states that Hendrick did anything but follow instructions. Both teams made changes to their cars that were not approved by NASCAR to “enhance aerodynamic performance.” In other words, they tweaked them to make the cars faster; there’s no clearer way to describe the teams did something illegal.

Last Friday at Infineon, when the alterations were discovered, talks of penalties began spreading like wildfire. Almost immediately, comparisons were made to Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s situation from a few weeks earlier. In that case, when the rear wing of his CoT was found to be illegal, his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was fined $100,000 and suspended for six weeks, Junior lost 100 driver points and the team lost 100 owner points.

But team owner Rick Hendrick tried to make it sound like this case was different. In his view, he claimed the violations were no big deal, and that NASCAR shouldn’t penalize his teams that harshly.

“We’ll have to see what the penalty is, but I don’t think the penalty fits the crime in this case when you’re talking about the top of a fender or the side of a fender,” Hendrick said. “I don’t see it as a situation where you had a certified part and it’s been altered or anything like that.”

What makes that comment so amusing is it contradicts something straight out of NASCAR’s famous rulebook.

“Section 20-2H – Fenders may not be cut or altered except for wheel or tire clearance, which must be approved by the Series Director.”

The rules just don’t get more clear than that. There’s no gray area, as many complaints from the busted teams throughout the weekend claimed. The fenders were altered, and the teams aren’t denying they were trying to gain an advantage; they’re just trying to make it sound like it was OK that they tried.

“I don’t necessarily say they bent the rules,” Hendrick said. “They thought they were working inside of an area they thought they could. The fenders on the car are sitting out there in front of God and everybody. If you’re going to try to do something to gain an advantage, you wouldn’t do it and roll it through inspection.”

Sure, Mr. Hendrick. So are we to believe that your team would never consider cheating? Knaus has cheated more times than a person can count on one hand throughout his career. In fact, he’s been penalized at least seven times for violations this decade; that’s not exactly a stellar record on which to build a solid reputation. Why should we believe this was an honest to goodness mistake?

The race fans who spend their good, hard-earned money to go to races should slap Mr. Hendrick with a penalty of their own for thinking that NASCAR and its fans are dumb enough to believe those words.

One of the major reasons for the development of the CoT, outside of safety, was to make the competition in racing more about driver skill than engineering technology. With that in mind, NASCAR has increased its typical penalties for the CoT when compared with those that were traditionally handed out with the old car, because they want to make their point loud and clear – don’t mess with a vehicle that tilts the balance back in the driver’s hands.

That’s exactly why rules like Section 20-2H exist, and it’s time for all of the teams to realize that when those rules are blatantly broken, they will most likely get caught… and should be ready to accept their punishment. – Kathy Grindle

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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