Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR Penalties: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Did You Notice?… On some things, despite mounting criticism NASCAR has the ability to stay consistent. In the wake of penalties issued Wednesday, the one that stands out the most here is Martin Truex, Jr.’s penalty for being too low in post-race inspection. That six-point deduction – equivalent to about 25 in the old system – along with a $25,000 fine for crew chief Chad Johnston keeps along with the same type of infraction reaching all the way back into the previous decade.

Why I find that important is, for the first time if you asked 50 of the top media members and garage insiders what Truex’s penalty would be, I’m confident all 50 would have said what actually happened. For once, a rulebook deadpanned as written in dry erase marker has a sense of permanence when it comes to a penalty for a specific violation.

The No. 56 team of Martin Truex, Jr. incured only a six point penalty for their car failing post-race inspection at Texas – consistent with what similar penalties have drawn in the past.

That’s important. Football, for example has an automatic 10-yard penalty for offensive holding. The moment the referee makes his gesture, signaling the call you know exactly what the consequences are and what will happen next. So how NASCAR regains its credibility is by decisions as simple as this one: when a violation arises, respond with the same set of penalties. Again. And again. And again. Repeat it until you fall asleep over boredom. Write it out more times than Bart Simpson has to write on that classroom chalkboard.

And if there’s a difference? Extenuating circumstances? Every once in a very long while (Note: the length of a Kardashian marriage is not a long while… more like Tom Cruise – Katie Holmes?) that type of stiffer (or lighter) penalty can be allowed. But when you do it, provide a crystal clear explanation to the point even your 2-year-old at home, just learning the alphabet can read it and say the word, “Okay.”

Then… and only then… will NASCAR gain the respect with the rules it covets so badly. When TNT says “we know drama,” they’re not filming those commercials with a rulebook, flipping to a random page and pinning their finger on any random violation. Unpredictability needs to leave the penalty box and return to where it belongs; in side-by-side competition, during the waning laps of a race at Bristol. Sonoma. Kansas. That’s where it should be.

Did You Notice?… That on occasion, NASCAR hides behind the shadow of consistency to do more damage than absolutely necessary? On the surface, they’ll say 25-point penalties and six-week suspensions of Penske Racing crew chiefs, for rear-end housing violations at Texas are no different than what they’ve done in the past. 25-point penalties for major violations have been the spirit of the rules, along with six-week suspensions for about the last half-dozen years (100 points under the old system).

Perhaps the biggest example of such punishment comes from Penske’s main rival, the ones some say helped NASCAR target their Texas violations. Six years ago, at Sonoma Hendrick Motorsports failed inspection for failing to fit the Car of Tomorrow template. As a result, crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte were suspended six weeks, fined $100,000 while both the No. 24 and No. 48 cars and drivers, at the time lost those crucial 100 points.

With the pending suspension of crew chief, car chief, and team manager for Penske Racing’s cars, has the bottom already fallen out of a season that was filled with early promise?

But the difference there, unlike what Penske’s about to go through is that only one member of the crew sat on the sidelines. Switching out talent at Hendrick Motorsports is equivalent to calling on the bench of a Dream Team; anyone, at anytime can step in and do an adequate job, as evidenced by Darian Grubb winning the Daytona 500 for a suspended Knaus (and Jimmie Johnson) back in February ’06. Penske, with the suspension of the crew chief, car chief, and team engineer on both his No. 2 and No. 22 (along with the team manager for both, Travis Geisler) will not have the same sort of luxury. Their organization, should these penalties hold would lose the equivalent of its NBA starting five for the next seven weeks – NASCAR’s All-Star Race is included in the penalty. Keselowski, at a place like Charlotte can only do so much, especially with a brand new racecar. It’s the crew around him, responsible for calculating both his driving style and setup needs that’s just as important – and they’ll be decimated beyond belief.

Perhaps NASCAR, seeing the depth of these multi-car programs nowadays felt suspending more people was necessary to do real damage. They could also feel these rear end housings, clearly deemed illegal under the eyes of inspectors were a team effort, a wide-scale conspiracy to ensure Penske would gain extra speed “under the table.” But aren’t all cheating incidents like that? I’d think point number one is more realistic.

If that’s the case, I’d still argue to make such a serious change in how you handle these things, in the middle of the season when you’re dealing with the reigning champion is too much. There’s also eyebrows raised when you look at how Jimmie Johnson’s last six-week suspension penalty, in early 2012 was handled on appeal. Penske is about to go down the same road; will NASCAR hold up the consequences this time? And if they don’t, will it immediately feed into what Brad Keselowski accused the sport of (and didn’t get fined for)… favoring one organization in particular at the expense of all others?

NASCAR painted themselves in this box. Unfortunately, even if the inspectors are right it’s a lose-lose.

Did You Notice?… That other times, NASCAR chooses not to be consistent at all? Ron Hornaday’s 25-point penalty, while severe, pales in comparison to the one-race suspension Kyle Busch got for wrecking Mr. Hornaday intentionally a year-and-a-half ago at Texas Motor Speedway. Yes, in this case NASCAR will argue no one was kept from winning a championship. But isn’t any race, where you lose points conceivably the one that can keep you from holding the trophy?

Ron Hornaday ought to be hiding his face in public after his cheap shot on Darrell Wallace, Jr. at Rockingham. Talk about role reversal: the wreck looked like a carbon copy of the incident between he and Kyle Busch at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011.

The way NASCAR handled Busch, despite his history of transgressions put them in a position where they had no choice but to suspend Hornaday. Especially when you look at the two incidents; the way in which both occurred are eerily similar. In both cases, the caution had been out for about half-a-lap. The guy causing the wreck was running at full speed when he shouldn’t have been. Serious injury could have resulted. It’s hard to find extenuating circumstances here.

Of course, the most ridiculous set of consequences were the ones that were never even handed out – to Brad Keselowski. How in the world could claiming NASCAR targeted a program, over a period of weeks not be denigrating the product? Remember when the NBA was accused of crooked officiating? You’d think the whole house of cards was about to come tumbling down. And Keselowski gets, from CEO Brian France, “He just needed to blow off some steam?”

One: I’d like to have those pictures Keselowski has of Mr. France. Must be some pretty nice blackmail going on there. Two: as has been stated, by many people this week Mr. Hamlin should be sitting on the hauler at Kansas asking for a $25,000 refund. But you know what I’d love for Kes to do? Take $25,000 and pay it to Hamlin instead. That, to me, would be a win/win for everyone…

Did You Notice?… The conundrum facing Richard Childress Racing? At the moment, their four-car operation whose top team in points position to make the Chase, Paul Menard, has a father who’s reportedly interested in buying the assets of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. You would assume, if John Menard moves elsewhere the son, along with his multi-million dollar sponsorship is likely to follow. That would leave just Jeff Burton’s car “secure” for 2014, with Kevin Harvick taking off to join buddy Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. Sponsors Budweiser, Jimmy John’s, and Rheem have not officially announced their plans but are expected to join the driver over at that new venture.

So where does that leave RCR going forward? Placing all their faith in the grandsons, the Dillon brothers as Richard works to complete sponsorship for Austin to move up in 2014. But even then, should Menard move elsewhere that’s only a two-car program; and Burton, let’s not forget has not exactly set the world on fire, posting one top-10 result in the season’s first seven races despite the presence of top-tier crew chief Luke Lambert. Outside investors, asking out of RCR last summer have also left the company at a financial disadvantage compared to superpowers Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.

Or could the Menard purchase, of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing be exactly the type of boost Childress needs to stay competitive? Hendrick and Roush both benefit from “B” programs, which take engines and chassis from their organizations and work in tandem, sharing information as much as possible. For Hendrick, it’s Stewart-Haas Racing; Roush has Richard Petty Motorsports, among other smaller-tier programs. At times, Childress and Ganassi have tried to work together in this way, but their once-booming engine partnership has fallen short, to the point EGR is now using powerplants directly from Hendrick Motorsports.

Well, any sort of Menard purchase, if the talks do develop beyond pure speculation would likely change all that. He and Childress, after years of working together with his son could consolidate resources, keeping two separate programs but ensuring both are “on the same page” mechanically. You’d also think Menard would be willing to spend more of his own cash, expanding what’s currently a two-car operation at EGR while giving RCR the shared resources to keep their shrinking program competitive.

It’s a rough road for Childress ahead, when you look at the options for next season without proper funding: moving Ty Dillon up, two years too early in a third Cup car or trying to steal Kurt Busch from Furniture Row Racing. Self-funded Brian Scott, while having a strong start in Nationwide just isn’t ready for the Cup level yet; would that be where he’d turn out of desperation? I think, with a Menard purchase that wouldn’t be necessary; Menard, in a partnership would take the pressure off and allow Childress to survive adequately as a two-car team, with maybe a third car running a partial schedule. And what if Dodge decides to get back in the game, and needs an established team and engine infrastructure that it was unable to find during 2012, after Penske jumped ship to Ford?

Only time will tell… but Menard’s entrance into the sport has plenty more implications than just Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.

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