Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR’s Penalty Process Casting a Long Shadow in 2023

It’s been a month now.

When NASCAR levied penalties on a total of five teams and one additional driver after the March 12 United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway, nobody expected controversy to linger after four more races were on the 2023 books.

But the aftershocks from Phoenix still reverberate through the sport. NASCAR’s penalty system — and the subsequent appeals process — have remained in the spotlight. And now, the entire system is at the forefront of the spot.

It began with the first inspection of the weekend at Phoenix. NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers from four Hendrick Motorsports teams. That was all anyone knew, but the louvers are one of many single-source parts, meaning they come from a single supplier and therefore cannot be altered. NASCAR didn’t say where or how they were altered, only that they were confiscated. The teams were allowed to change the louvers, which occurred before they ever took to the track.

A fifth team — this time the No. 31 of Kaulig Racing, driven by Justin Haley — had the same part taken during the next inspection, before qualifying. They had practiced with the questionable part but not competed with it, as it was changed before Haley’s qualifying run. All five cars passed inspection before and after qualifying and racing their cars.

The final action came during the closing laps of the race, after a restart bunched the field into a seething swarm of cars with tired, frustrated drivers behind the wheel. Denny Hamlin found himself sliding up the track with a choice: back out of the gas and backslide through the field or stay in it and force another driver to make the decision to back out or make contact instead. The other driver? Ross Chastain, with whom Hamlin had a history of run-ins. Hamlin didn’t back out. And neither did Chastain.

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Then, during his Monday night podcast, Hamlin admitted he hadn’t tried to avoid contact with Chastain; to the contrary, he’d decided that if he was going for a slide, he’d take his rival with him.

The fallout came days later, on Wednesday, when NASCAR handed down punishments. The four Hendrick teams and Kaulig’s No. 31 team received four-week suspensions and $100,000 fines for their crew chiefs as well as the loss of 100 driver/owner points and 10 playoff points (with the lone exception of substitute driver Josh Berry on the No. 9, who is ineligible for driver points in the Cup Series and therefore could not be docked those points though the other penalties still applied).

The listed penalties for the Hendrick cars differed just slightly from the Kaulig ones; while all were deemed in violation of rules relating to radiator ductwork and single-source parts, Hendrick’s penalties also listed time, manner and/or location as determining factors. The Kaulig ruling listed “guiding principles relative to penalties,” likely relating to theirs stemming from a different inspection session.

Hamlin was fined $25,000 and docked 25 driver points.

All six appealed the penalties under NASCAR’s process. And that’s where everyone jumped into the proverbial handbasket.

The four Hendrick teams had the first hearing. The team argued that the parts, as delivered from the single supplier, were defective and did not fit the hood openings they were supposed to. NASCAR called BS.

The three members of that day’s appeal panel agreed that there was a rule violation and the suspensions and fines were appropriate — but they gave the driver points back to Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron.

It might have been a safe assumption that the Kaulig appeal would go the same way … but it didn’t. Haley got 25 of his 100 points back but the other 75 were a lost cause. 

Hamlin, the last to be heard, lost his appeal outright. Hearings dragged through the weeks leading up to last weekend at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track. And they left race fans with more questions than answers.

NASCAR has, in recent years, been more consistent with penalties levied thanks to spelling many of them out in the rulebook for specific violations. But what it hasn’t been is transparent about the violations themselves. Some, like Hamlin’s, are more black-and-white, though even then there are questions about the when, why and who of application.

Others, though, leave fans to guess.

In the midst of it all, NASCAR made a couple of changes. One is that it will, as it did for many years, display any confiscated parts in the garage on race weekends for all the teams to inspect for themselves. That’s a great decision; everyone in the garage deserves to know exactly what’s in question.

But so do the fans, and most fans aren’t able to visit the garage to see for themselves.

The other change NASCAR made, quietly, on the same day as the Hamlin appeal was heard was to change the appeals process so that the panel can’t erase point deductions, only reduce them to the lowest published point deduction for a particular violation. The panel can only erase a point fine if it also overturns the entire penalty.

That’s … not a great decision. The entire purpose of the panel is to make sure that penalties are fair, taking everything into consideration. It should have the power to make an objective decision one way or the other.

So what should the penalty process look like, from start to finish?

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First, if NASCAR finds something, it should inform everyone exactly what the violation is. In the case of the Phoenix penalties, how exactly were the louvers in question altered, and how did they compare to a legal part? What advantage, if any, was gained?

Appeals also should be transparent — whether they’re streamed, perhaps on NASCAR’s media site for media to disseminate to fans, or whether transcripts and supporting documents are released afterward. 

Finally, the panel should be required to explain its decision. Currently, it doesn’t have to tell NASCAR or the team/driver involved anything other than the ruling itself. That should change, out of fairness to both sides if nobody else — though again, if NASCAR wants the process to be taken seriously by fans, making that reasoning public could only help the cause.

After his hearing, Hamlin released an emergency podcast that actually details the process and his version of the event at Phoenix very well. In it he states he was given absolutely no indication of why he lost; Hamlin claims he had ample evidence that contradicted NASCAR’s ruling. Agree with him or not, it’s an excellent listen.

As it stands, there are some long-term implications here. In the wake of Hamlin’s violation and hearing, will drivers be less willing to engage in hard racing for fear of being penalized if something goes wrong (as Hamlin claims happened) in a racing incident?

That’s something fans should not want. There are already accusations of drivers being too vanilla on and off track; curbing hard racing should never be a concern, though intentional wrecking should absolutely be dealt with swiftly and convincingly. But those are not the same thing. Drivers should not have to fear they will be treated as such.

There’s also the question of whether anything is ever over. NASCAR chooses which cars it takes back to its research and development center very carefully after each race, and in the past that has absolutely led to questions about who’s being targeted (and if the sanctioning body takes them with intent to find violations).

After the Hendrick teams got their points restored, two Hendrick cars were promptly taken to R&D, where NASCAR found a violation with the way the windshield wiper housing was mounted to the front of the car’s greenhouse. Last year, after Kevin Harvick made some disparaging comments about the quality of parts (something teams are still arguing is an issue), his No. 4 was also taken after the next race at Talladega Superspeedway and the team subsequently penalized for a deck lid issue. Coincidental, maybe. But again, to many fans it looks like deliberate payback, which isn’t good for anyone.

Even when the cars taken to R&D were chosen randomly, the process didn’t look random; one team’s car was taken as the random for several consecutive weeks in a row several years back after their car was found to be nearly (but not quite) out of tolerance in some area that NASCAR didn’t like. It never violated the rules.

Finally, is taking points that were earned with a legal car justified? All four Hendrick cars as well as Haley’s ran with legal louvers at Phoenix and didn’t make a qualifying run with them out of tolerance either. Fines and suspensions for intent seem reasonable, but taking points that were earned fairly is a tough sell in the case of an inspection problem. In the case of driver conduct during a race? That’s plenty justified.

The next time NASCAR rolls past the watching saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert will be for the race that decides it all. In a year when the sport faces a crossroads as it seeks a new TV deal, NASCAR can’t afford to frustrate fans with penalties and a process that’s inconsistent and secretive. By the time they roll back into Phoenix, the shadow cast by the first trip should have long since disappeared.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Well written summary. There are too options. Transparency or go back to the Bill Sr. dictatorship which may be ultimately better for “sports entertainment.” But the bigger questions that aren’t getting answered or discussed seriously yet are whether charter owners actually own the charters or not. Nascar is being asked to make them permanent and not up for renewal every 6 to 10 years. As Hamlin put it, ‘How do you get investors interested in buying into a team if you can’t guarantee them that they actually own something of actual value. Its no longer an investment.’ It appears to me that Nascar is delaying discussion on this topic until as close to TV negotiations as possible so it can use this as a bargaining chip to avoid giving the owners a larger piece of the TV money. Without having access to team’s books, its hard to know that actual financial status.
A great opportunity for a true investigative reporter.

Kurt Smith

Good analysis Amy and you raised nearly all of the important questions about NASCAR’s penalty and appeals process.

There is one question I’d like to add that the timing of all of these penalties makes obvious to me. How does intentionally wrecking a competitor result in a 25-point deduction, while altering a part provided by a NASCAR-approved dealer result in a 100-point penalty?

It seems to me like that’s pretty backwards…like NASCAR is suggesting that messing with their sanctioned racecar parts to gain an edge (clearly we’ve all forgotten what the “S” in NASCAR stands for) is four times as bad as putting a fellow competitors’ life at risk on the racetrack.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
Bill B

You’re right. The optics make it look like they care more about the cars than the drivers. LOL…. which, actually, isn’t funny at all.

Kurt Smith

I was thinking not caring about the cars so much as demanding that the teams fall in line with NASCAR’s endless pursuit of parity in auto racing.

I should have clarified that because it’s an important point. Where do we have the most parity in races? Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta. And there is absolutely no way to know who is any good at any of those three tracks. Put the pedal to the floor and hope you don’t get caught up in the massive pileup.

In their infinite wisdom, NASCAR thinks parity is a good thing. Because Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon just sucked so much interest out of the sport with their domination.

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