Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: What’s in a NASCAR Suspension?

This past weekend’s race at Loudon, N.H. marked the eighth race of the Car of Tomorrow, the sixth race of Tony Eury Jr.’s suspension and the first race off for both Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte after their infractions last week at Sonoma. It’s the circle of life, Simba; as one suspension ends, two more begin without so much as a hesitation with NASCAR’s new, by-the-book mentality in place.

However, it was widely reported all weekend long that even though Knaus and Letarte were indeed suspended, they were still at the track in some capacity. NASCAR reasoned that while they cannot be physically with their team, they are still permitted on certain track property and can remain eligible to pursue certain types of communication with their organization (namely, cell phones, IM, etc.).

All this got me to thinking: what the heck is in a suspension, anyway?

No, I don’t mean springs, shocks, sway bars or control arms. With NASCAR’s new get-tough-on-cheatin’ policy that they have for the first time in 59 years seen fit to enforce, we have established a new precedent of levying exorbitant point and monetary fines to anyone who dares exploit the CoT in any way, shape or form. With fines that have been increased from the standard 25-point fine to now 100 points and $100,000, crew chiefs are now being sent home faster than Vanna White can make a letter appear on Wheel of Fortune.

Well, kinda.

NASCAR Director of Competition Robin Pemberton explained that the offenders in question were not allowed to work on the cars or be in the pit box, but still allowed in the vicinity if they wanted to buy a ticket or watch the race from a motorhome. NASCAR has maintained that they would not make an attempt to police the communication that might occur between the teams and their crew chiefs who have been disciplined by the sanctioning body.

As expected, and as we have seen in the past, the physical absence of the crew chief amounted to absolutely nothing. Jeff Gordon came within a half a car length of winning his fifth race this season, and Jimmie Johnson ran comfortably all day, coming home in fifth place, his best finish since a third-place run at Darlington six races prior.

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Now, if NASCAR was looking to make a point to the teams and crews, why not ACTUALLY suspend the crew chiefs for real? Confiscate their credentials and treat them as a rowdy Talladega fan who’s been caught firing for effect on his least favorite driver cutting donuts on the frontstretch. Since virtually all of the race teams are based around the Charlotte area, the suspended crew chief in question should report to a NASCAR facility to meet with officials the weekend of the race.

No communication should be allowed during the day, and there certainly should be no communication during the race. While the term “suspension” carries some weight and sounds severe, it really sounds much worse than it actually is.

With technological advances such as email, text messaging, Instant Messaging through the Internet and Nextel’s own two-way walkie-talkie feature, the suspension just makes communicating a little more difficult and covert than it normally would be. If the crew chiefs are right outside the track, does it make much of a difference if they are sitting there in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt rather than fire-retardant Nomex?

It’s kind of a joke, and insulting to the fans’ intelligence, who are being assured that the rules have been enforced by the most literal interpretation and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Please. This is the equivalent of a drunk driver being pulled over by the police, blowing a .20 and then being escorted home and issued a $40 ticket for loitering.

In 2006, when Chad Knaus was suspended for a month after installing an adjustable rear window in the back of the Lowe’s Chevrolet for Daytona 500 qualifying, one of the principle topics being discussed was not how Darian Grubb would perform in relief, but rather how they were going to get around the suspension. It was roundly accepted that they wouldn’t suffer all that much since they could still communicate with their exiled leader.

They responded in kind by winning the Daytona 500. Things really fell apart the next week with a second place at California. They managed to rebound and win the following week at Las Vegas.

A suspension. Oh no, the horrah!!!!!

See a pattern developing? The rationale behind the ever-increasing fines of points and money has been “$100,000 isn’t anything to these guys, so maybe the points and sending their crew chief home will get their attention.”

If by “get their attention” you mean, “win with regularity,” then yes, you probably have gotten their attention, and subsequently encouraged the practice that much more. The crew chief gets to study and plan race strategy from a climate and element-controlled environment. No screaming 9,000-rpm engines. No 140-degree track temperatures. A vantage point slightly more dynamic than sitting on top of a toolbox.

The six weeks that Eury Jr. has been absent from the pit box, the No. 8 has posted five top-13 finishes and two top fives; all the while enduring the announcement that their driver (and likely the aforementioned crew chief) would not be returning for 2008. He scored his best finish of the year at Loudon with Tony Gibson as crew chief, a fourth-place effort.

Moreover, these large teams such as Hendrick and DEI have the opportunity to employ the depth of their race teams, placing highly qualified individuals in the catbird seat in a trial-by-fire exercise on the grandest stage. Not only do they let the crew chief recharge his batteries a little, a new guy gets to step in and prove his mettle as well.

This is not to cast aspersions or belittle the efforts of the teams or personnel in question. Far from it. If anything, it is an extension of their job descriptions and roles: Get the most out of the equipment you can, pushing the rules as far as the sanctioning body will allow. In this case, it means going Dick Cheney and operating out of an undisclosed location, making strategic decisions and offering suggestions from a new and unique perspective.

And even if they weren’t actually on site, and were back at their race shops, what would they be doing? Right, applying their attention to detail and ingenuity to the cars that will be traveling to the next five races.

With some of the brightest minds in motorsports like Knaus, Letarte and Eury Jr., that is hardly a handicap. If anything, it would be considered a blessing.

My take is this: If you’re really going to suspend somebody, do it right. Suspend the crew chief AND the driver. Fining a guy who has nearly a 300-point lead that will evaporate in two months with the onset of the Chase anyway 100 points is kind of silly and ineffective at best.

If it’s a show-trial you’re trying to put on, save everyone’s time and let the crew chiefs work on the cars like they have for the last six decades. Give them a gray area in which to work and employ their experience and talents, push the rules and engineer these cars as they have in the past. Right now the CoT is running on three wheels in the middle of the corner, suffering impromptu wheel lock-ups entering a turn with tire smoke billowing out from under the cars, and still, six months into it, “not driving right.”

As much as I hate drawing parallels to stick-and-ball sports, in this instance it is appropriate. If a coach or manager is ejected from a game, it can make a noticeable difference to the outcome of the contest. If it’s compliance they’re truly after, NASCAR needs to take the ball away from them and send them home. While the crew chief might be considered the coach of the team, the driver is still the quarterback. Until he misses a start, no one is really going to notice or take it to heart.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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