Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR’s Rule Enforcement Problem

Haas CNC Racing is the latest student to be schooled in NASCAR Rule Enforcement. They committed the cardinal sin of tinkering with the CoT and have received a good old-fashioned whoopin’ for it. This article isn’t excusing Haas, but, in the end, it may be NASCAR that violates the best interests of the sport with their blind heavy-handedness.

As everyone knows by now, NASCAR has been enforcing a zero tolerance policy regarding the new car that is about equivalent to six months in jail for a traffic violation. Any attempt to step outside the strict boundaries has resulted in a loss of 100 points, $100,000 and six weeks work for the crew chief. This had been the broad brush standard from day one of the winged snowplow. That is until now – the ante has been upped: mess with the car and you’re looking at 150 big ones now.

The Haas cars had the rear wing brackets illegally mounted, which for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team last season resulted in a 100-point, $100,000 fine penalty. But according to No. 66 crew chief Bootie Barker, Haas had run the cars that way all season without a problem. Kudos to NASCAR’s exacting inspection methods!

The Haas cars passed two initial inspections, but NASCAR was apparently tipped off to give the Haas cars a second look, which resulted in their confiscation. Barker didn’t quite deny the team’s guilt, but he was clearly distressed at the finger pointing in the garage area that led to their discovery. OK, he may have been embarrassed and lashing out at the ratfink that gave them away, but Barker’s statement followed a related statement from NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp: “The garage is a self-policing area. We follow up on information we get. That was the case with this.”

If NASCAR’s inspection process isn’t finding problems and informants are required, is it fair to question whether the process is suspect? The severity of punishment that NASCAR now dispenses is more than a little steep considering that its enforcement is at least occasionally based on tips from other teams. Does NASCAR have informants in the garage? Better yet, do they have “favorite” informants?

To go along with that, the world of NASCAR found out a few weeks ago that there is more gray area in the new car than initially thought. In this year’s Darlington race, several cars, like the No. 99 of Carl Edwards, had the rear housing adjusted so much that the cars appeared to be crooked while on the straightaway. While NASCAR initially ignored Jeff Gordon’s complaints about the chassis of the No. 99 – Series director John Darby opined that drivers are already complaining that NASCAR legislates too much – eventually they did tighten the limit on the amount that the rear can be adjusted.

That may have sounded to some like NASCAR trying to placate their number 2 matinee idol, but look at it from Gordon’s standpoint for a second – his team lost 100 points, 100 grand and Steve Letarte for six weeks last season before Sonoma for attempting to adjust the front fenders in a manner that was within NASCAR’s tolerance for the car. And this was before qualifying had even started. NASCAR simply didn’t like the way they did it. The Nos. 24 and 48 teams were given a hard message not to mess with the car at all. Had they known that the rear of the car could be adjusted so radically without penalty, they might have done so.

To sum up all of this, NASCAR still hasn’t really defined what is a violation and what isn’t with the new car; they often rely on informants to find information on crew chiefs trying anything funny; and when they do find something, they levy a gargantuan penalty that is almost always larger than the difference between first and second, or 12th and 13th, or 35th and 36th.

Now, add the brilliant playoff system into this mix. When a team runs 26 races and needs only to be 12th after the last one, 150 points, while definitely painful, is not as much of a blow to their championship chances. But once the Chase starts and all bets are off, a 150-point penalty will most assuredly knock a top-12 team out of contention for the Cup. No Chase has been won by even close to that large a margin.

This has already resulted in questionable policing. In the Dover Chase race last year (a Car of Tomorrow race), Edwards’s winning car was found to be too low in post-race inspection. The penalty: 25 points. Spokesman Ramsey Poston stepped up to the mic and said, “This is not considered a Car of Tomorrow-type penalty. There’s no evidence of manipulation of the integrity of the structure of the car.” Then why any penalty at all?

Since then, NASCAR has been consistent on a similar infraction – Ryan Newman was handed the same 25-point deduction earlier this year for a car being too high in post-race – so did NASCAR remember that they only penalized the No. 99 just 25 points in the previous season’s Chase and decide to stay consistent on height infractions?

What exactly does constitute a “Car of Tomorrow” type of penalty?

Fast forward to Vegas. NASCAR found that the oil cover lid was removed in the race-winning No. 99 car, giving the car more downforce. There was no such “not a Car of Tomorrow infraction” explanation this time, in a non-Chase race – despite that this was something that could have been, and was, done in the “classic” car just as easily and to similar advantage – NASCAR came down hard with their 100-point pounding this time, and on top of that disqualified the possible 10 Chase points for Edwards’s win.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the Chase comes.

Suppose an informant that has an axe to grind with a Chase team lets NASCAR know that the team is walking the line on a spec. And suppose it’s a proverbial “gray area” which still exists on the new car as the Nos. 24 and 48 teams proved at Sonoma last year and the No. 99 team proved at Darlington this year. And suppose that this happens during the final 10 races of the season. Heck, let’s go all the way… suppose it’s the No. 88 team.

Is NASCAR going to remain consistent and swing the 150-point sledgehammer that they swung so decisively Wednesday?

If they do, it will take a team and a driver out of the championship running, which will infuriate that driver’s fans at a level inversely proportionate to the quality of the explanation that Ramsey Poston gives. If they go wobbly and back off, the fallout will be about 11 times as harsh… from all of the fans of the other drivers in the Chase who would be irate at NASCAR’s sudden leniency regarding the Car of Today for certain drivers.

Either way, NASCAR’s reputation for bungling leadership, already more evident than it should be, will take another serious hit.

And for all of the blather about tougher enforcement, is the winner of the Sprint Cup this season going to be the team that has nothing to lose and is willing to take a chance on that gray area for that little edge that they don’t yet have… and win by taking advantage of NASCAR’s unwillingness to proportionately punish a Chase team? No team would try that, would they?

This is, of course, a dilemma of NASCAR’s own making. We already know that the Chase was not very well thought out, as evidenced by the suggestion of tweaks every season, and they are overreaching in their gaudy enforcement of the new car. Now there is potential for the two factors to turn into an explosive combination.

Most NASCAR fans don’t condone cheating, and no one here is saying NASCAR should not crack down on the sport’s scofflaws. But the only thing worse than no rule enforcement is inconsistent rule enforcement. And as things currently are, there’s a looming possibility of it.

Kurt’s Monster Shorts

  • In Humpy Wheeler’s last driver meeting at Lowe’s, he made a point to thank the drivers, saying that no one ever bought a ticket to see him do anything at the racetrack. If only NASCAR had the same mentality. Then again, that may be why Humpy’s out. How dare he suggest that NASCAR needs the drivers.
  • I have heard Dover referred to as Martin Truex Jr.’s “home track”; especially since he scored his first Cup win there in this race last year. Dover isn’t actually all that close to Mayetta, N.J. It’s certainly not close enough to make the trip easy every Friday. For you comedians out there that aren’t from N.J., Mayetta is exit 63. The Parkway.
  • I was present to witness the epic Matt KensethJeff Burton battle at the September Dover race of 2006. I’m sure that was great on TV but it truly kicked ass being there. And Gordon gave me five.

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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