For the second time this season, NASCAR may be on the verge of instituting a new rule, mandating nothing more than common sense.
NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said last week that the sanctioning body is considering a new addition to its already voluminous rule book, outlawing (or at least reining-in) post-race victory celebrations. O’Donnell’s comments came less than 24 hours after Watkins Glen winner Denny Hamlin appeared to intentionally destroy the rear end of his winning Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, smoking the rear tires until they exploded and tore away much of the car’s rear bodywork.
O’Donnell called Hamlin’s exuberance “a trend we don’t like to see,’’ acknowledging widespread speculation that recent incidents of tire blowing and body shredding are less about happiness and more about the desire to mask subtle rule violations.
“We want to see a celebration, and we think that drivers can celebrate without doing that,” said O’Donnell. “So you’ll probably see us -- sooner than later -- put something in place that covers us for that. We’re talking to a lot of the teams about it, and I think everybody is on board with the direction we want to go in.’’
Unfortunately, this is familiar territory for NASCAR. Just a few weeks ago, the sanctioning body was strong-armed back into the lug nut enforcement business, after drivers Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle publicly accused them of being soft on driver and fan safety. The end result was cockamamie – and largely unenforceable -- rule requiring all teams to have 20 lug nuts installed and secure, at all times.
Currently, section 126.96.36.199.c of the Sprint Cup Rule Book reads; “the first-place vehicle may engage in appropriate celebratory activity (such as a victory lap, burn-out(s) or donuts) prior to reporting to victory circle.” Now, it appears that additional, more specific language may need to be crafted, prohibiting the winning jockey from entering Victory Lane at the Kentucky Derby, then shooting Secretariat in celebration.
Despite O’Donnell’s assertion that everyone in the Sprint Cup Series garage is “on board” with the proposed new decree, an informal survey of drivers and crew chiefs at Watkins Glen International revealed that most actually oppose the proposed rule change. This, despite veiled admissions that post-race victory celebrations do indeed include a healthy dose of evidence tampering.
Last October, after Kevin Harvick buzzed his tires to the point of failure at Dover, Hamlin spoke openly about the tactic, saying, “We all know what we’re doing. Nothing we do is without merit. As drivers, we know when a tire is about to blow and sometimes, we continue to put the throttle to it. The winner is the only one that’s able to damage his car after the race, without it being too obvious.”
Former series champion Brad Keselowski sang a similar tune, saying, ‘I’ve definitely blown tires out (on purpose). I think every driver has done something to do some kind of damage to their car.’’
Clearly, there’s more happening here than simple celebration. And the longer NASCAR declines to act, the more exaggerated the post-race donuts will become. As they always do, teams will continue to push the competitive envelope until the sanctioning body steps in to pull back on the reins.
It’s really quite silly.
At the risk of sounding like Walter Matthau in the movie “Grumpy Old Men,” I remember the days when post-race victory celebrations included a lap with the checkered flag in hand, followed by some champagne spraying and the kissing of a Trophy Queen in the Winner’s Circle. Everyone seemed happy, but none felt the need to express their joy by destroying the winning car.
Today, however, when the difference between victory and defeat is often measured in 10,000ths of an inch, self-restraint has become passe’. Now, it’s all about “burning them down” and backing the car into the nearest concrete wall, in an effort to mask the subtle (and probably illegal) modifications that brought it to Victory Lane in the first place.
With the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup just a few short weeks away, NASCAR appears ready to act, joining the NFL – dubbed the “No Fun League” for its hard line on all things celebratory – by outlawing post-race hijinks and mandating simple common sense.
Soon enough, they’ll be taking undamaged cars to the NASCAR Research and Development Center for Monday morning inspection, and Secretariat will live to run another day.