Thursday, September 23, 2010

COMMENTARY: Bowyer's Penalty Highlights Room For Improvement

Sunday night at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer’s #33 Chevrolet was given a clean bill of health by NASCAR, as officials gave members of the media the traditional “all clear” pronouncement signifying that all competitors had passed their post-race technical examinations.

Yesterday afternoon at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center, everything changed, and a lot of people don’t understand how, or why.

A certain portion of NASCAR’s fan base has always believed the worst about the sanctioning body’s motives and morals. They point to Richard Petty’s fairytale 200th victory at Daytona as a prime example of NASCAR’s willingness to “fix” races. They point disdainfully at late-race “phantom cautions” designed to manipulate the outcome of events, and bemoan the mistreatment of “little guys” like Carl Long, who find themselves slapped with potentially career-ending fines while established stars like Jimmie Johnson get off with a comparative slap on the wrist.

In their minds, the umpire is not simply incompetent, he is corrupt. Yesterday’s events only solidify that belief.

Bowyer is a well-liked, plain spoken underdog in a sea of manicured corporate correctness. His “aw shucks” approach to the sport has made him a favorite with fans and media members alike, and many are now questioning NASCAR’s decision to dash his championship hopes for a violation that took 72 hours to uncover. As one e-mailer wrote today, “NASCAR looked at Bowyer's car until they found something. If they don’t want you to win, you’re not going to win.”

Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby did his best to explain the difference between at-track technical inspections and the more exhaustive examinations done at NASCAR’s North Carolina R&D Center. He explained that cars must be largely disassembled in order to obtain the measurements needed to determine the legality of Bowyer’s car; something that obviously cannot be done at the racetrack. He also revealed that Bowyer’s violation was similar to the one that brought the #33 team “hold-your-breath close” to sanctions the previous week at Richmond. That explanation did little to sway the tide of public opinion. People had already picked sides, many of them siding with Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team.

“It doesn't make any sense at all that we would send a car to New Hampshire that wasn't within NASCAR's tolerances,” said Childress Wednesday. “I am confident we fixed the area of concern and the New Hampshire car left the race shop well within the tolerances required by NASCAR.” He also raised the spectre of reasonable doubt, saying the rear bumper of Bowyer’s Chevrolet was hit by other drivers as they congratulated him on his cool down lap, and that the car was pushed from behind by a wrecker on its way to the Winner's Circle. Both instances, he claimed, could explain the .060 of an inch discrepancy allegedly found by NASCAR. In fact, he said, it was “the only logical way” for the left-rear corner of the car to be too high.

There is nothing reasonable, nor logical about racers who step outside the rules. If reason and logic were a part of the equation, no-one would risk scuttling their championship hopes for a small boost in on-track performance. And yet, racers have always cheated. The winner of NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race was stripped of his trophy for running illegally altered “moonshine springs,” setting a standard that continues to this day. Smokey Yunick, Junior Johnson, even the revered “King Richard” himself were all caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar at some point in their career. And when caught, each of them pleaded “not guilty.”

Finding a race winner with an illegal car is increasingly rare in the modern era of NASCAR. During the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s downright unprecedented. An escalating series of monetary and point penalties has made the risk no longer worth the reward, or so we thought.

Bowyer’s penalty changed all that.

"It's not any easier on our part than it is on the competitor,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton yesterday. And on that count, he is correct. Yesterday’s news hurt everyone; Bowyer, his race team, NASCAR and its fans.

It's a bad deal for everyone, and in an effort to prevent it from happening again, perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to change its post-race inspection policy. If there are truly questions that cannot be answered without a complete, fine-tooth-comb teardown, maybe it’s time for NASCAR to stop declaring race winners “all clear” until Tuesday or Wednesday, after a thorough post-race inspection has been done, and done correctly.

The days are gone when a competitive NASCAR racecar could be constructed in the back bay of Joe’s Garage. Gone too is the day when they could be properly inspected under a corrugated steel roof in the waning light of day.

NASCAR and its fans deserve better.

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