Earlier this week, NASCAR announced L1 penalties for three Joe Gibbs teams (Nos. 11, 18 and 20) for having splitters that did not meet rules specifications during pre-race inspection before Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.
Drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones were sent to the rear of the field to start the race. Each team was assessed a $25,000 fine and their crew chiefs were suspended for the next race (two weeks at Sonoma). As an aside, I worked for half a season with Hamlin’s car chief, Jason Overstreet, in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. I will spend the entire race harassing him with obnoxious texts.
Here’s my issue:
When Kevin Harvick “won” the Las Vegas race back in March, his car was found to have an issue with a rear window brace and the win was basically stripped from the No. 4 team as a result. Harvick’s Las Vegas win will not count in any tiebreakers and will not count to get in the playoffs. He lost 25 points, too.
A week later at Phoenix, Chase Elliott got hit with a penalty with the same wording for a trailing arm spacer that didn’t meet NASCAR’s specifications, but no points were lost.
This is where it gets trickier. At Texas, Elliott’s car was found with the same issue that Harvick got busted with at Vegas. The penalty announcement had no language about counting toward tiebreakers or playoffs and no loss of points. Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez have had the same issue. Only thing that came of those infractions were fines and crew chief suspensions.
Inconsistency much? Why is the same infraction not the same penalty each time out? How are we measuring intent? Like three cars from the same team having the same issue? And how much are we taking into account the things that happen during a race that change the body or suspension of a car?
There are some important differences with the Gibbs’ penalties at Michigan. They were discovered pre-race and the teams didn’t take to the track in the race with the cars with the shady splitters. I get it that a big part of racing is pushing the gray areas in the rule book. If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. And it’s NASCAR’s job to catch the cheaters.
The problem comes when NASCAR catches the cheaters. The whole penalty system has changed over the last few years and they have started assigning levels and they had that whole “encumbered” thing that kept Joey Logano out of the playoffs. I honestly think NASCAR keeps changing the way it works to keep people confused. As he does, and as I mentioned last week, Bob Pockrass had the best take on it last week: “Most series don’t do the extensive NASCAR measurements. And that’s NASCAR’s biggest challenge: Measuring things so closely to keep an even playing field but, when it views violation like a misdemeanor, how to penalize when public perception is it’s a felony.”
Part of the problem is that fans – me included – don’t understand the things NASCAR is penalizing teams for. I am not an engineer, so I don’t get how a depressed rear window makes your car go faster. I understand how a bigger engine makes you faster or how a lighter car makes you faster. I don’t know how a cheated-up splitter can make you faster – those things seemed to be sealed tightly to the racetrack as it is – but, again, not an engineer.
Fans have been saying they want consistency and transparency for years. Explain the logic behind what gets points taken away, what is just a fine and what gets people kicked off of the racetrack or suspended. Look, NASCAR, it’s your game and you can call it how you want to. We are just asking you tell us what you are doing and why. In the midst of the fan exodus, those of us who have stuck around deserve that.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.