Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Too Much Rain, Too Many NASCAR Penalties & Too Little Parity?

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news and rumors. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!

This Week’s Participants:
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor & Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Tony Lumbis “(Mondays/Rookie Report)
Beth Lunkenheimer (Tuesdays/Running Your Mouth & Various/Frontstretch Truck Series Reporter)
Matt Taliaferro (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)
Bryan Davis Keith (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)

NASCAR did everything possible to get the Auto Club 500 off as scheduled Sunday. But in the end, they came up short – thanks to Mother Nature and a host of other issues. Given the condition of the track, should the race have even been attempted Sunday? And does the postponement of Sunday’s race, a hardship for the teams because of a 3,000-mile trek home, followed by another 3,000-mile trek back to Las Vegas, indicate the need for a real overhaul of the schedule, or are acts of nature to be expected and dealt with as they come?

Bryan: The wrecks speak for themselves on this one.
Matt T.: The whole show this weekend was pathetic. I applaud NASCAR for trying to dry the track, but after two accidents blatantly caused because of wetness, the race should have been immediately postponed until Monday.
Amy: That race never should have even gone green in the first place.
Beth: I agree. NASCAR was well aware of the problem of the track spewing water before Sunday even came around; they had to tear the track up Friday night to try to fix that.
Tony: You’re right, guys; in hindsight, the answer is no, they shouldn’t have run it. But NASCAR was going off of the drivers’ input on the pace laps – all of which seemed to say it was OK.
Amy: What drivers were you listening to, Tony? Five teams lost good cars because NASCAR catered to TV advertisers. The front row could see it clearly. I was listening to Jimmie Johnson‘s scanner, and he said it was a mess.
Tony: On the pace laps?
Amy: Yes.
Bryan: There might as well have been puddles on the track, Tony. The water was clear, even on camera.
Matt T.: The whole show was a mess, if you ask me. NASCAR continued to paint itself into a corner throughout the day, and you could see it happening the whole time. It just got worse and worse.
Tom: I think in the three years I’ve been covering races at the track full-time, this is the worst decision I’ve ever seen firsthand. And I’ll go you one better…

See also
Bowles-Eye View: California's Weekend Joke Puts NASCAR Passion to the Test - Did Yours Take a Hit, Too?

Amy: The race shouldn’t even be at California this weekend.
Beth: I don’t think anyone will argue that one.
Tony: Without a doubt, this sends a message that the schedule needs to be changed.
Amy: Well no, Tom, it shouldn’t; it should be there on Mother’s Day weekend, and that’s it for the year.
Tom: I’ll second that, Amy. I mean, that’s how this whole mess started, guys. NASCAR has painted themselves into a corner with this schedule. Who in their right mind asks teams, drivers and media all based on the East Coast to turn around and fly 3,000 miles to a California track four days after their Super Bowl?
Tony: The underlying problem is that NASCAR felt extra pressure to get the race in on Sunday because of the traveling that lay ahead.
Tom: Exactly, Tony. They knew a Monday race would put pressure on teams to even make it to Vegas. This is the first year they eliminated the off-week between the two venues; and boy, did they pay the price for it.
Amy: California does not deserve two races, anyway; and not during the rainiest part of the year, for sure. That market was tapped with one race.
Matt T.: I don’t think anyone besides NASCAR would argue that it’s officially past time for Cali to have a date swiped.
Tony: Which is interesting, because a rumor is flying that California will switch its Labor Day race with Atlanta. I wonder if there is more to that than just a switch?
Beth: They never should have gotten that second date.
Bryan: You know, I feel bad for the Nationwide teams more than anyone. What a horrible weekend for them; think of how much those teams had to spend in hotel and logistical adjustments this weekend alone.
Tom: I’m telling you right now, you could see six to seven of those start-and-park teams not even show up to Vegas. I mean, how are they going to get their cars there in time with one hauler? NASCAR really needs to create some separation between California and Vegas.
Matt T.: Many of the teams aren’t even coming home now, just heading straight to Vegas, Tom.
Tony: Honestly, with the exception of the Vegas race in the desert, I think the series should probably not leave the Southeast until April because of weather concerns.
Tom: Well, Ontario is supposed to be a desert, too, Tony, but just because it has that next to its name doesn’t mean it never rains in that area. It just rains less… but it does happen.
Beth: There’s also the whole issue of people who paid good money to be in the stands. At what point are you just inconveniencing fans by making them wait?
Bryan: I think the boos heard on Sunday answer that question.
Tom: What I still can’t believe is how they put us all through the ringer, waiting five hours before calling the race, five hours!!! And then having the gall to have everyone back by 10 a.m. the next morning.
Matt T.: That’s why I’m saying that if there was any doubt, they should have definitely called it after the second accident.
Amy: How can you say after the second accident? That was too late. And it ruined the chances of five good teams. Well, four good teams and Sam Hornish Jr.
Matt T.: Oh, you’re right. But realistically, NASCAR wouldn’t have done that. Ultimately, after two wrecks because of the seeping, they should have called it. That should have been the final straw.
Tony: It is interesting that while the race was going, the same crew that finds microscopic pieces of debris didn’t see that weeper.
Amy: Well, NASCAR should have listened to the drivers, who had everything to lose by staying an extra day and still didn’t want to start. I’m all for doing right by the fans; but this was at the expense of driver safety.
Matt T.: You know what really gets me is that even if they had restarted at midnight or whenever, NASCAR would have still called it just past halfway. What a complete joke.
Tony: NASCAR was in a bad position which, yes, they put themselves in; but I can see their point of doing everything possible to try to get that race in on Sunday.
Tom: I just think the sport owes an apology to the crews, team, and fans for what transpired. People put in 17-hour days… 17 hours, seven of which could have been easily averted if NASCAR had just called it after the second rain shower. Everyone knew the weepers were a problem, and with the Nationwide race postponed, there was little point in pushing it because half the drivers were going to need to stick around anyways. What a poor decision.
Matt T.: As for the February race itself, I’ve been saying since the Chase started that the schedule needs an overhaul. Problem is, NASCAR can’t do it because it won’t yank dates away from existing Chase tracks without the threat of a lawsuit.
Tom: But California currently isn’t a Chase track, Matt. One of its dates could go without a problem. Also, don’t forget: ISC tracks won’t be suing NASCAR over losing Chase dates. It would be equivalent to suing itself because ISC and NASCAR are virtually the same entity.
Amy: I know NASCAR has to cater to the fans, but they can’t do it at this ridiculous an expense to the teams. I can’t believe NASCAR won’t admit that putting Darlington back on Labor Day would go a very, very long way with the real fans.
Matt T.: It’s a pride thing now, I think.
Tony: That might be the right formula for success. They already found that having just one race will sell Darlington out, just think if that one race were on Labor Day.
Matt T.: Hey, didn’t the Rock lose its date because of weather issues and poor attendance? Do you see the irony here?
Tony: That is ironic, Matt.
Amy: On a side note, I found it terrifying to see a driver with a car on fire inches away.
Tony: I thought we were going to have a bad ending there for a few minutes. Kudos to the safety officials for keeping that accident from becoming a tragedy.
Tom: Great point. And heads up by Casey Mears to get out quickly… that’s who I feel the worst for out of all this. That team is now in a deep hole for the second straight year.
Matt T.: Denny Hamlin isn’t in much better shape, either.
Bryan: Gotta feel bad for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin, having to sleep all night knowing they had wrecked cars to drive the next day.
Amy: What they could have done was restarted Monday and allowed the Nos. 5, 88, 11, 41 and 77 to pull out backup cars. Start from lap 1, let them run backups. Who would it have hurt?
Beth: No one, and it would have gone a long way to fixing the mistake that was Sunday night.
Tony: This whole thing kind of reminds me of the Winston a number of years ago when they all went into turn 1 and all hell broke loose. I was almost wondering if they were going to suspend the race after the Mears wreck and, Amy read my mind.
Matt T.: Conspiracy theorists would have gone wild. But come to think of it, I don’t like that idea too much myself. In fact, not at all.
Tom: I’m with Matt; I don’t think you can take back laps that have already been completed in a points-paying race. All NASCAR can do is learn from this and move on. More focus than ever will now be put on the schedule-makers for 2009. Because if you think the bitter feelings surrounding this race are going to fade into the distance, you’re crazy.
Matt T.: For as good a race week as Daytona was, California was opposite end of the spectrum bad.

Hendrick Motorsports was strong again in a CoT “debut” Sunday, as Jeff Gordon and Johnson dominated several portions of the race. Is this a case of same old, same old for 2008, or does it appear other organizations may be catching up?

Amy: Uh, Since HMS didn’t win I’d say yes, others are catching up.
Beth: Other organizations are definitely catching up. No doubt about it.
Bryan: I think that if we learned anything, it’s that Roush has come a long way.
Tom: I actually think differently: Carl Edwards was strong, but the Hendrick cars were clearly a step above and beyond everyone else.
Matt T.: Agreed. Like Carl said himself though, HMS was still the team to beat on Monday. Luckily for him, he had a good enough car to get that done.
Tony: I don’t think you can make conclusions from this one race, especially because the Nos. 24 and 48 are always strong in California. You can’t necessarily attribute that to the CoT preparation.
Tom: California has typically been a Ford track the last few years, too. I think if Vegas is a Hendrick runaway, it’s same old, same old.
Amy: But the HMS cars weren’t even close at Daytona, except maybe for the No. 5.
Matt T.: Teams aren’t building two fleets anymore, so yes, there is bound to be some catching up to Hendrick. But HMS and the Nos. 24 and 48 specifically are still the teams to beat.
Bryan: There may not be an organization that has caught HMS but individual teams have. The No. 18 team has come a long way, the No. 99 was stout… there are other contenders out there.
Tony: As we’re seeing, this is a really tough question to address this early in the season. A more accurate view will come in May or June when we’ve hit several types of racetracks.
Matt T.: JGR was thiiiiis close last year to beating HMS in the CoT races; they just didn’t have things fall their way. Gibbs is real close again right now.
Tony: JGR’s engine program – combined with the fact that they have a new driver with a chip on his shoulder – could make it a serious contender this year.
Beth: Don’t forget about Penske. They’ve shown they can run well in the first two races.
Bryan: Penske still has a bit of a way to go on intermediates, though.
Tony: I think, similar to last year, Roush, Hendrick and JGR will be the contenders. The jury is still out on RCR and even Penske to an extent. GEM is showing some signs of life early; I would watch them, especially next week.
Matt T.: Get outta here.
Tom: What’s troubling to me is that a lot of the credit on the Roush side is going to the engineers. So, basically winning in the sport isn’t necessarily about complete driving skill, it’s about number crunching and simulations at the shop. Can anyone say NAS-cula 1 in the making?
Matt T.: You have to unload close Tom, and that’s where the simulations, etc. at the shop come in. From there, it’s about the driver and crew. The driver’s butt makes a fast car a race-winning car. That hasn’t changed.
Tony: I agree that it’s more technical than ever, but I’m hearing that these drivers are saying the new cars are a handful, so I’m not ready to completely knock them out of the equation.
Bryan: And Roush has got to make up for that lack of horsepower somewhere.
Tom: That’s true, Bryan. Honestly, I was surprised Roush won here again considering the comments concerning the engines.
Bryan: Roush as a whole ran really well today. It’s definitely not NAS-cula 1 yet.

The Robby Gordon Penalty: Never has a sponsor put so much effort into backing their driver in an appeal with NASCAR. Usually, it looks the other way; is this merely an indication of the unfairness of the penalty, or is it the beginning of a trend – and what consequences could come of it?

Amy: It’s the utter stupidity of the penalty. Although, if their campaign is successful – and I hope it is – I am concerned about precedent.
Beth: It’s definitely the unfairness of the penalty. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see other sponsors do the same thing for their teams.
Bryan: I think Jim Beam as a sponsor is also aware of how important the Top 35 is. It’s been on both sides of it, and Robby scoring 100 points less for top-10 finishes isn’t going to keep them locked in the field.
Tom: Of course the sponsor will stick up for its driver – it knows if it doesn’t, that car is in jeopardy of missing the races it’s supporting.
Matt T.: But if a sponsor of a popular driver, or just a popular sponsor, were to have a say in these things, we’re heading down a slippery slope.
Tom: 10-4, Matt.
Tony: I’m sure Gordon is appreciative of the support, but sponsors already dictate enough in this sport.
Amy: I mean, what if Junior broke a rule and AMP stepped in and got the fans involved? There would be a fan mutiny!
Tony: Yeah, that’s the truth of the matter, Matt and Amy. I think every team in the garage area would agree that the penalty is too severe, but you would think someone on the crew would have caught that.
Matt T.: I’m not sure that the penalty is unfair, actually. I don’t agree with the severity, but it is standard fare for a violation at this point.
Amy: The penalty was lame… there was no performance advantage.
Tony: People are saying it’s consistent with the Nos. 24, 48 and 8’s penalties last year in terms of setting precedent, but the nature of the penalty isn’t consistent. We’re back to the infamous gray area!
Bryan: I don’t think too much of a precedent can be inferred for this violation. It’s not a commonplace excuse to say, “Oops, we had to rush a manufacturer change.”
Tom: And the bottom line is that excuse is similar to “the dog ate my homework.” Technicalities are just that… technicalities. You can’t give a guy an easier time because he decided by choice to make a manufacturer change at the last minute.
Amy: Sponsors stepping in and taking such an active role is precedent, Bryan. And by the way, why is the nose for the current Dodge model not approved for competition?! If it’s virtually the same, why hasn’t NASCAR OK’d it? There is no excuse for that.
Matt T.: It’s a decal. That’s about it, seriously.
Beth: This has been heavily debated on the Frontstretch message board for the last week, and for the most part, we agree. The penalty was stupid and shouldn’t have been given.
Tom: I don’t understand why it shouldn’t have been given, Beth. Breaking a rule is breaking a rule.
Matt T.: I think the penalty, like many penalties, was stupid in its logic and severity. But, and this may not make sense, it should have been given. Wrong piece on the car? Again, “Dog ate my homework.”
Amy: How? RGM ordered the part in good faith, using the correct part number outlined by NASCAR. Dodge had changed the part number. No advantage, unlike the other big CoT penalties.
Tom: It doesn’t matter where the oversight was, the rule was broken. If it’s Dodge’s fault, they should compensate their teams accordingly. That’s like saying, “Well, I took a test but studied with someone who didn’t know the material the night before… so that’s why I did bad.”
Tony: I hated when that happened.
Beth: Dodge can’t give those points back, though, and certainly can’t guarantee they’ll make the race — which in this day of competitive cars is much harder than it used to be.
Tom: But Dodge can support them financially until they do get themselves back in good shape.
Tony: So, let’s look at the precedent, should this hold: A six-week crew chief suspension, 100 points, etc. will be the penalty for any violation. Is that fair?
Matt T.: I have a problem with penalties given out before the car touches the track; let me be clear on that. But I don’t think Robby’s mistake should be overlooked just because he says it was a mistake and wasn’t his fault. That’s what tech is for, to make sure the car is legal. One shouldn’t be sent to the principal’s office before stepping foot in the classroom.
Amy: But the mistake was fixed before the car qualified. Why penalize?
Beth: I’ve always had a problem with penalties before the car ever hit the track, Matt.
Amy: NASCAR said last week it was no big deal, and I feel like if there’s any other team, there’s no penalty. If Kasey Kahne had the wrong nose, NASCAR would have told them to fix it and come back through.
Beth: And that’s where an even bigger problem lies, Amy. You can’t just pick on a team because you don’t like them.
Matt T.: I don’t buy that. Why is it OK for Kasey but not Robby? I’m not following.
Amy: NASCAR penalizes certain teams heavier.
Tony: NASCAR fined the biggest hitters in the sport last year – so I’m not sure that they’re playing favorites.
Amy: Really? HMS got shafted at Infineon last year when they failed template.
Matt T.: So did Junior, the wing issue.
Amy: In my view, Junior’s was fair… he was allowed to qualify and race with no on-track penalties.
Matt T.: But Junior, Jimmie and Gordon all got this same penalty last year. Crew chief gone, 100 points in two departments. That’s not playing favorites.
Amy: Pulling the HMS teams from practice and qualifying for failing template was plain wrong, not the six weeks and points. The no practice… that was B.S.
Matt T.: I agree with that, Amy, but that isn’t the real issue here. They nailed Robby the same as they nailed HMS and Junior last year.
Tony: Yeah, if anything that proves that NASCAR does not play favorites. The point here is that you’re basically saying NASCAR hates Robby, so they penalized him. And I don’t agree.
Amy: But the week after Infineon, guys, I heard from a source that 17 teams at New Hampshire failed template and not one was pulled from practice or qualifying. If that’s true – and I think it is – how does that shows consistency? I really think the punishment was NASCAR using Robby to set an example, and I don’t think they would have treated another team the same way. Robby doesn’t fit their business model.
Beth: I agree completely. Amy.
Bryan: Rally for Robby!
Tony: But if that’s true, NASCAR hates Jeff, Jimmie and Dale – which I don’t think is the case.
Tom: Well, the way I look at it is this: The sanctioning body can use the first race of the year as a tone to showcase how the year will be run. If they start out with this type of fine for a violation that is supposedly “minor,” then they better be prepared to back it up for subsequent violations.
Matt T.: Well, I’ve gone on record in this forum before – and sometimes coming under fire for it – that NASCAR over-penalizes. That said, Robby’s, “It wasn’t my fault!” excuse doesn’t hold water in my bucket.
Amy: I do think they like to be heavy-handed with HMS, but not to the extent of Robby. Robby made NASCAR look stupid at Montreal, and it didn’t like it.
Matt T.: So then, whose fault is this? Robby’s tandem burnout with Kevin Harvick just came back to haunt him! I knew it would, somewhere, somehow.
Tom: Look, I like Robby. Quite a bit, in fact. We need people like him in the sport. But sometimes in life, *^%& happens and we have to deal.
Bryan: You’ve got to take the situation into consideration though. This team changed manufacturers in a big-time hurry, it’s the first race of the year, everyone is scrambling, that has to mean something.
Tom: Not NASCAR’s fault Robby decided to change manufacturers, Bryan. I got into class at the last minute because of traffic, so should I get five extra points on the midterm because I’m stressed? Bad, bad precedent to set.
Amy: No, but you shouldn’t get five points off for writing your name on the right side of the paper instead of the left, either.
Tony: It was a violation, and NASCAR said, “Hey, we fined and suspended crew chiefs last year for violations, so we need to do it again here.” Too simple? I think so, but that’s what happened. Can we ever devise a penalty system that fairly penalizes different sets of infractions? That’s the question here.
Amy: The three fines last year were all for violations that had performance implications. This was not.
Bryan: I don’t think there is any way to make it fair. I mean, I disagree with Tom on this issue, but he’s got a point to some extent; it’s up to RGM to keep its cars in order.
Matt T.: Well, maybe Mr. Gillett will loan him some moolah and bail him out.

NASCAR has cracked down on infractions in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series just as hard as they did on the Cup teams in the last year – is this the consistency the fans have been looking for, or are some of the penalties handed out excessive?

Amy: They handed out six-week penalties like candy after Daytona.
Matt T.: Most penalties are excessive in my opinion – but we’ve been begging for consistency in rulings. Be careful what ya wish for,
Tony: Gotta go with precedent on this one… an infraction is an infraction.
Bryan: Johnny Sauter was on the money when they interviewed him about this. Teams like Phoenix Racing and Johnny Davis Motorsports aren’t deep enough to handle six-week suspensions well.
Tom: I think it’s the same concept we’ve been talking about, though. NASCAR is setting a precedent on how hard they’re going to come down on teams this year; but every time the depth of teams is in question, they usually persevere. Kertus Davis was having a good top-25 run in California until late in the going with JDM.
Amy: But these aren’t CoT teams, and they can’t afford the penalties.
Tom: Once again, you shouldn’t police a sport based on whether people can afford it. You base it on whether or not people are cheating.
Bryan: I agree with NASCAR on this one. They need to send a clear message, and they did.
Beth: They’ve got to set their limits at some point. The earlier in the season they do that, the better things should go the rest of the way.
Amy: The No. 5 car blatantly cheated. They deserved it.
Matt T.: True. And then Junior and Rick acted like they’re all upset about it. “We’ll get to the bottom of this!” Whatever.
Tom: The bottom line is that if we want a system based on equality, we need to practice what we preach on the penalty side.
Bryan: Sauter has a point, though; these penalties aren’t going to hit teams consistently even if the penalties are consistent. What is a hiccup for JR Motorsports could end Davis’s team. That’s got to be addressed to some extent.
Matt T.: I’d agree with that. But again, we’re not talking about 100Gs here.
Tom: And Davis should get an advantage over another starter team because he decides to circumvent the rules and they don’t? I’m not saying I have the answer, but this is a tricky area.
Amy: They left a cover unfastened. The No. 5 team altered the spoiler. Big difference.
Tony: The one thing that could be argued here is that the monetary penalty should be proportional to the race winnings. The points should be the same.
Amy: Penalize a percentage of the purse. Say, 10%.
Matt T.: I could get with that idea. Get Balash on the phone!

OK, predictions for Vegas?

Beth: Tony Stewart.
Tom: Johnson.
Tony: Matt Kenseth continues the Roush Fenway streak.
Matt T.: Jimmie is going for three in a row, but I’m going with Kenseth. He was top five in Cali and he’s usually a beast at Vegas.
Amy: I say Kyle Busch.
Bryan: I’m with Amy… Kyle Busch gets Toyota their first Cup win and leaves the track leading all three series in points.

About the author

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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