For an appeal hearing amid one of the more contentious NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in recent memory, there sure wasn’t too much discourse about Cole Custer and Stewart-Haas Racing losing their appeal to reverse their Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL penalties over affecting the race outcome, was there?
Probably because it was the cut-and-dry right thing to do.
Custer’s teammate Chase Briscoe made the playoffs’ Round of 8 due in large part to Custer’s final lap at the ROVAL earlier this month that saw him drop in the finishing order, allowing Briscoe to make up the necessary spots to knock Kyle Larson out of the final transfer position. NASCAR saw it as a violation of its rules against artificially changing the results of a race and a driver’s commitment to race at 100% of their ability at all times, slapping Custer with a $100,000 fine and a deduction of 50 championship points, while the team itself lost 50 points in the owner’s standings. Crew chief Mike Shiplett? An additional $100,000 fine and an indefinite suspension.
There were people in SHR’s corner, sure, but public opinion on social media and even here in Frontstretch‘s comments section was largely in NASCAR’s favor. Hell, some thought the punishment didn’t go far enough.
Not going to argue that point; what’s done is done. It could have been worse, but it sends a message that NASCAR will not tolerate even the appearance of outright manipulation, especially in its premier series.
Except … it doesn’t, because NASCAR hasn’t always been consistent on this front.
It certainly was on Spingate. Michael Waltrip Racing got its just desserts, people are still pointing at it nearly a decade later when talking about basically anything postseason-related — I mean, it’s got its own name.
But remember when Chase Elliott held up Kevin Harvick last year at Bristol Motor Speedway with the express purpose of, as he put it on the radio, helping out Larson? Sure, it was retaliation against Harvick ending Elliott’s own bid for the win, but it nonetheless resulted in Larson scoring the win when he might not have otherwise.
Or how about 2020, when Erik Jones didn’t pass Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway while the latter was trying to earn a Championship 4 berth? “Don’t pass him, Jones,” came the direct quote on the team radio. He sure didn’t.
No penalty on either.
And look, you can make the argument that the 2021 Bristol incident didn’t affect nearly as much in the grand scheme of things, as both Elliott and Harvick still made the next round of the playoffs.
And maybe 2020 Martinsville is different because the driver who was in position to make the playoffs was ahead of the driver who could have affected the outcome but didn’t. Whereas Briscoe needed spots and got them by Custer — whether you believe the tire issue explanation or not — losing track position.
That should no longer matter. Going forward, now that NASCAR has established that it believes Custer was in the wrong, it needs to ensure we’re not having this whataboutism conversation again.
Something as egregious as the “Don’t pass him, Jones” line? 100% rule, and the team in question should have awfully airtight reasoning for why a driver shouldn’t pass a teammate outside of the playoff implications.
Driver retaliates while expressly saying something about helping their teammate in the process? Even if it’s said tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t matter. 100% rule, messes with the outcome, etc.
It’s time to take the ambiguity out of the equation — at least as much as possible. If NASCAR’s going to say Custer’s situation at the ROVAL, where not only did it look like something was fishy but something amiss was also said on the team channel, is worth a penalty, the same should be done for other instances where radio communication appears to indicate someone isn’t meeting the 100% rule.
This may result in teams resorting to code words, but wouldn’t that be pretty obvious, too? Especially if the same thing happens more than once. It’ll likely take a lot of work for teams to continually throw NASCAR officials off their trail.
And if nothing is said over the radio at all, fine. With continued technological advances, I’ll wager NASCAR will be able to look into the in-car telemetry to determine whether something faulty occurred. If nothing looks outright suspicious or at least can’t be reasonably proven, then whatever, don’t penalize. We’ll chalk it up to one of those instances where no one can ever be truly sure what went down.
With Custer, it feels like a slam dunk. And as long as NASCAR keeps up this kind of enforcement, it’s on the right track.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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