Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Penalties Against Hendrick Again?

1. Is it time for the pairing of Martin Truex Jr. and James Small to split?

Since 2020, Martin Truex Jr. has been trying to capture the week-in, week-out dominance that he had until crew chief Cole Pearn abruptly retired at the end of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Truex won one race in 2020 and followed it up with four wins and a runner-up points finish in 2021. However, that was followed by a disastrous 2022 that saw him miss the playoffs and go winless for the first time since 2014.

Pit strategy was an Achilles heel at times last year, mostly notably at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where a two-tire stop with 95 laps to go (the top three finishers all took four) foiled a potential win after Truex had led 172 of the first 206 laps.

Strategy woes were present once again at Richmond Raceway last Sunday (April 2). Truex was battling for the lead with William Byron when a caution came out for Tyler Reddick with 28 laps to go. That forced Truex to put on used tires for the final green-flag run, as the No. 19 team had elected use an extra set of tires earlier in the race.

With the tire disadvantage, Truex faded to 11th by lap 400.

Upon reviewing the team’s radio communication, Truex was not even told by crew chief James Small that he was on older tires than the rest of the field until after the race was over.

Yes, a strategy will sometimes go wrong. But with a driver the caliber of Truex, he should’ve at least been told about the tire disadvantage before the restart; his mind then would’ve turned to defense, and he may have been able to save a few positions on the track.

The nightmare ending to Richmond further compounded a frustrating start to the season for Truex. Even with a win in the exhibition race at LA Memorial Coliseum, he has just one top-10 finish through the first seven races.

And after missing the playoffs last year and a slow start this year, it is time for a crew shakeup for the No. 19 team. This has been the fourth year since Small took over, and the team’s successful 2021 season is looking more and more like a distant memory.

Not to mention that Truex will be 43 in June, and he likely doesn’t have many years left at the Cup level. Try something new while there is still time.

2. Penalties against Hendrick Motorsports again?

Nearly one month ago at Phoenix Raceway, all four cars from Hendrick Motorsports were hit with 100-point and 10-playoff point penalties for modifying single-source parts, in this case the louvers. Each team was also fined $100,000 while the four crew chiefs were given a four-race vacation.

Flash forward roughly two weeks, and while the penalty was upheld, all four cars had the points penalties wiped off the board. It was a decision that drew controversy, especially with how secretive the appeals process is; only the results of the appeals are publicized.

Furthermore, every team guilty of modifying single-source parts in 2022 had their penalties upheld. And on Wednesday (April 5), Justin Haley and the No. 31 team had its 100-point penalty only reduced to 75 points; the rest of the penalty stood.

The Hendrick ruling broke precedent from before and after the case, and there is nothing out there to explain why such a ruling was reached.

To be clear, NASCAR was not happy that the points were restored to Hendrick.

The next race was at Richmond Raceway on April 2, four days after the results of the Hendrick appeal were announced. And while no cars failed post-race inspection, it was announced that the cars of Alex Bowman and Byron would be taken back to the research and development center.

Sure enough, Hendrick was hit with a penalty again.

See also
Hendrick's Nos. 24, 48 Cup Teams Penalized After Richmond

The teams were hit with 60-point and five-playoff-point penalties. Crew chiefs Greg Ives and Brian Campe, who were already subbing for the suspended Hendrick crew chiefs, were both hit with a $75,000 fine and a two-race suspension.

The NASCAR rulebook was also given a change.

If the appeals board determined that the team broke a rule, it is no longer allowed to restore all of a team’s points; any team that broke a rule has to have its points penalty stay within a specified range.

That was likely done to prevent what happened with the Hendrick appeal, as the board ruled that Hendrick had committed an infraction but elected to restore all of the team’s points anyway.

With all the attention set for the second appeal, there will also be questions surrounding the selection of Hendrick’s cars to the R&D center. Was selecting Bowman and Byron after Richmond a coincidence? Or were they chosen because NASCAR thought they would find an infraction and wanted to get around the results of the first appeal?

Combined with the owners failing to show up for an April 5 meeting regarding the charter system with NASCAR, it appears that the relationship between the sanctioning body and the teams is on thin ice.

3. Should Cup teams have Chandler Smith on their radar?

While there was a lot of hype for the newcomers of the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series, rookie Chandler Smith already looks like a veteran.

Through seven races, Smith has recorded six top-12 finishes, four top fives and his first career Xfinity win at Richmond on Saturday (April 1). The victory came in just his 10th start, and Smith was only two laps away from another win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March.

There are still 26 races left to go in the 2023 season, but all indications point to him being a year-long threat for wins and the championship.

And while it would probably be too early for a Cup team to consider luring him away for 2024, the current Cup situation for Kaulig Racing may be something to watch for 2025. AJ Allmendinger and Justin Haley currently occupy both seats, and while both drivers have shined on certain occasions, the team has also had its fair share of struggles since going full time in 2022.

If Smith is available for any Cup team in need of young talent and new blood (looking at you, Stewart-Haas Racing) down the road, it would be worth trying to pursue. After all, Kaulig was able to snatch Smith away from his longtime home of Toyota, and it has paid dividends so far.

But of course, Kaulig shouldn’t let him go easily. Smith is only the second driver behind Allmendinger to win for Kaulig in the Xfinity Series at a track other than Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.

See also
Eyes on Xfinity: Could This Be the Newest Rivalry?

4. When will Nick Sanchez score his first Truck win?

Zane Smith and Christian Eckes look to be off to the best starts in the young 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season. That was further confirmed at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, as the two drivers were fixtures in the top five for the entire race.

But neither driver dominated the storylines like Nick Sanchez, who almost completed a perfect race in his fifth Truck start.

Sanchez won the pole and was the dominant truck out front for almost the entire afternoon. No live pit stops left the entire battle for the lead on the racetrack, and Sanchez kept clearing himself to the lead on restart after restart.

Until the last restart, that is. A last-lap crash with Smith and Eckes ended the bid for Sanchez’s first win, a tough pill to swallow when the No. 2 truck was out front for 168 of the 172 laps.

But despite the finish, Sanchez and Rev Racing (which has an alliance with Kyle Busch Motorsports) have shown speed to start the season with two poles and a top-five starting spot in all four qualifying sessions.

Sanchez also showed success at intermediate tracks in ARCA, as he scored two wins at Kansas Speedway and another at Michigan International Speedway.

But if there’s one takeaway from the first handful of races, it’s that Sanchez and the No. 2 team are fast. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team put it all together in the next five to 10 races.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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would the last owner leaving the garage please turn off the lights.it looks like the parties over.

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