Sunday, June 05, 2016

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Lug Nut Controversy Is Just... Nuts

No one seems certain how it happened, or why.  

But in recent weeks, NASCAR has found itself in the unenviable position of suspending and fining top Sprint Cup Series crew chiefs for violating a “safety rule” that has no discernable impact on safety. 

Last week, the crew chiefs for drivers Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger earned $20,000 fines and one-week suspensions when their cars were found to have a missing or loose lug nut during the running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Those missing lugs had no impact on the competition, and no one’s safety was not compromised. By all accounts, Busch and Allmendinger were unaware that they competed with less than a full complement of lugs, until informed by NASCAR following the event. 

And yet, fines were levied and suspensions handed down.  

Eighteen months ago, NASCAR was happily out of the nut business, after announcing that a longstanding rule requiring five secure lugs per wheel would be stricken from the 2015 rule book. As they often do, teams quickly found a way to exploit that change to their own benefit, expediting late-race pit stops by attaching only four (or in some cases, three) lug nuts.  

That strategy carries a degree of inherent risk, and this season, a handful of drivers have been forced to return to pit road pit after experiencing on-track vibrations caused by loose lug nuts. Despite the fact that not one crash has occurred due to loose or detached lug nuts, however, some of the sport’s most respected drivers have railed against the so-called “danger” or doing so, demanding that NASCAR save them from their own teams by once again requiring five secure nuts per wheel. 

Former Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart was the most vocal of the group, accusing the sanctioning body of turning a blind eye to safety.

"For (NASCAR) to sit on their hands on this one ... this is not a game you play with safety,” said Stewart. “I guarantee you that the envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt. You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel.”

Veteran Greg Biffle sang a similar tune, calling loose lug nuts “a ticking time bomb. The left-rear tire is going to fall off of one of these cars and spin out," he said. "The thing is going to go driver’s side into the fence, and we’re going to hurt someone.”

NASCAR quickly found itself painted into a public relations corner. Labeling uncaring by one of its top drivers and spurred to action by others, the sanctioning body had little choice but to once again begin policing an area of the sport that it has no need, desire or reason to enforce.  

In fairness, not everyone in the NASCAR garage participated in the strong-arming. Championship crew chief Chad Knaus had it right when he said, “NASCAR shouldn't be policing (lug nuts). It's not their job. They shouldn't be telling us how much camber to run. They shouldn't be telling us anything like that. They should just be focusing on what's within the guidelines and what isn't.” 

Unfortunately, Knaus’ common-sense appeal was drowned out by the Chicken Little rantings of others, whose predictions of weekly death and dismemberment dominated the headlines, despite the complete lack of any proof that such a risk truly exists. 

No matter what you may have read on social media lately, wheels rarely break free from NASCAR stock cars. And when they do, loose lug nuts are almost never to blame. In the final race of the 2004 season at Homestead Miami Speedway, eventual series champion Kurt Busch’s right-front wheel came loose in Turn Four. That incident occurred when the center of the wheel failed, however, and had nothing to do with loose lug nuts.  

Most NASCAR fans are hard-pressed to recall even a single instance of loose lugs causing a wheel to roll free, despite the fact that in virtually every NASCAR Sprint Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series race, lug nuts are left loose or missing; either inadvertently or intentionally. 

Loose lugs every week for decades, with nary a single errant wheel to show for it? Whose definition of "safety issue" is that? 

It’s a ludicrous premise, especially in a season when so many drivers have blown right-front tires and hit retaining walls at high rates of speed, due to overaggressive right-front camber and air pressure settings. Goodyear and NASCAR issue “recommended” camber and air pressure settings each week, but they are not policed on race day. Instead, teams are allowed to make their own decisions, often pushing the envelope for increased performance, while accepting an increased risk of tire blowouts. 

Why is nobody wailing about the dangers of excessive camber and reduced air pressure? Why are there no drivers demanding that NASCAR immediately begin overseeing these vital safety concerns? 

Simple. Because this senseless debate is fueled entirely by emotion, rather than fact. 

Fact is, not a single car has crashed this season due to a detached wheel. Not one. In marked contrast, two cars have crashed due to detached steering wheels. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson suffered a hard qualifying crash during at Phoenix International Raceway in March, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was briefly forced to steer with his hands when the steering wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet detached under caution at Talladega Superspeedway. 

In the aftermath of those incidents, there were no new rules implemented and no hysterical predictions of doom. Just promises from both drivers to be more observant in the future, to avoid putting themselves in harm’s way. 

That’s a common-sense approach, in marked contrast to the sky-is-falling idiocy now running rampant in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage. 

NASCAR does not deserve the negative publicity they have received in recent weeks. Tony Gibson and Randall Burnett did not deserve to sit home while their teams labored short-handed at Pocono Raceway this weekend.  

And NASCAR fans do not deserve to be misled; fed a line of bull about a non-existent safety concern that is really no concern at all.


  1. I agree Dave... Didn't you say these drivers (and fans) had better be careful what they asked for... They asked for this....

  2. Anonymous12:35 PM

    So how many wheel have to come off for this to be a valid RULE??

    Better yet how many fans must get hurt for this to be valid?? SMH

  3. Charlie12:37 PM

    Agree totally, seams like some of the older drivers are getting a little scared. If a team is willing to gamble for a win I say it's their choice. NASCAR is safer than ever. Soon we will have bubble wrap on the cars.

  4. I agree tat this is silly. I see it and driver's getting their hide end beat every week were crying about it. I like Tony Stewart but think he is one was nuts on this one.

  5. They made their bed, now we have the bed bugs.

  6. Anonymous8:53 AM

    It is easy to see that the drivers are paid for their driving skills and not their thoughts. Bite off my nose despite my face comes to mind.

  7. Not sure how relevant this is, but Indycar only has one lugnut per wheel. In Detroit Saturday Will Power had one come off, causing him to lose a wheel. It resulted in one car involuntarily leaving the track, zero injuries, and the car raced and won the following day.

  8. Well said Dave. It is unimaginable that Crew Chiefs were suspended for such a minor infraction. Thanks for your blog, I love reading it.

  9. I've been watching Nascar races since 1981 and I have never seen a fan or racer injured from a wheel coming loose on it's own. Not counting wrecks where wheels came off because of the wreck. But wheel only, never seen it.

  10. Anonymous6:36 PM

    I think if there is a lug nut violation, instead of suspending the crew chief, suspend the tire changer. Suspending the cc doesn't really bother anyone, but losing the A-team tire changer for a race might.