It’s time for NASCAR to sharpen its teeth.
In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s most recent slate of post-race penalties, it has become patently clear that the sanctioning body is failing to communicate effectively with its teams by issuing punishments that both penalize the guilty party and discourage others from committing similar violations in the future.
Following the race two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway, three of the Top-5 finishing machines were discovered to be outside NASCAR’s technical guidelines.
Clint Bowyer’s second-place finishing Ford received an L1 penalty for a rear window support that failed to keep the window rigid at all times. That penalty has become commonplace this season, and Bowyer’s Mike Bugarewicz-led team received the standard penalty of a $50,000 fine for the crew chief, a two-race suspension for car chief Jerry Cook and the loss of 20 driver and owner points.
Third-place Daniel Suarez was also busted for wonky rear window supports and received an identical sanction, with crew chief Scott Graves fined $50,000, car chief Todd Brewer suspended for two races and the team losing 20 driver and owner points.
Fifth-place finisher Kurt Busch received a post-race L1 penalty for a loose lug nut (crew chief Billy Scott fined $10,000) and Austin Dillon – the 26th-place finisher at Dover – received a pre-race L1 penalty for a front splitter violation. Crew chief Justin Alexander was fined $25,000 and car chief Greg Ebert was suspended for one race.
One would suspect that penalties of that magnitude would instantaneously capture the attention of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.
One would be incorrect.
This past weekend – just days after Wednesday’s announcement – a significant portion of the field failed to clear pre-qualifying inspection at Kansas Speedway. Six different drivers – Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Michael McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto and Timmy Hill – never made it to the qualifying grid, despite the fact that NASCAR delayed the start of time trials by nearly 15 minutes to accommodate repeated inspection failures by those six teams, and others. Three additional drivers -- Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray – made single laps in the opening round of qualifying after repeated inspection failures, then opted out of Round Two, saying they were “uncomfortable” with their cars. At least one of those drivers later admitted that the prospect of starting Saturday night’s race on virtually new tires also played a role in his team’s decision to withdraw.
NASCAR’s response to this continued malfeasance was to hand out the exact same penalties they have assessed multiple times in the past, apparently hoping for a different result.
Last week’s Wonky Window penalties had absolutely no impact on the NASCAR Garage. If you doubt that, just wait until Wednesday, when NASCAR hands down penalties to Kyle Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing team for a set of carbon-copy window supports that failed to do their required jobs Saturday night, just as Bowyer’s and Suarez’s failed to do at Dover. Just as Kevin Harvick did at Las Vegas and just as Chase Elliott’s did at Texas.
That’s five Wonky Windows in 12 races. If flexible rear windows hurt performance – rather than helped it – do you think it would take 12 weeks for teams to solve the problem? Absolutely not. Teams continue to build Wonky Windows for two specific reasons. Because they work (making the race car faster), and because NASCAR has not yet handed down a penalty that even begins to offset the boost in performance those windows provide.
Until those two facts change, conduct in the garage will not improve. And to that end, it’s time for NASCAR to ratchet-up the sanctions ad put a stop to Wonky Window Wednesday.
It’s time for the sanctioning body to take a nostalgic approach, investing in a few boxes of Sawz-All blades and simply cutting off the offending pieces like they did in the old days, before putting the illegal technology on public display for all to see.
Got an illegally modified splitter on the front of your hot rod? We’ll just hack it off – along with a few inches of the front valence, for good measure – leaving your team with the unenviable option of either rebuilding the race car on Friday afternoon, or rolling out the backup.
Failed to make it through pre-qualifying inspection? Instead of slapping your hand and banishing you (and your brand new tires) to the back of the pack for the start of the race, why not do what NASCAR threatened to do a few weeks ago, forcing the offending teams to serve pass-through penalties on the opening lap of the race, leaving them a lap or more in arrears before the event has barely begun?
Come up short in your post-race visit to the NASCAR R&D Center? Prepare to lose everything you earned this weekend -- every point, every dollar and every bit of playoff qualification -- before sustaining additional post-race fines, point penalties and suspensions. You'll even be bringing back the trophy.
And for God’s sake, can we please stop delaying the start of qualifying until the rule-breakers are through messing around? Instead of drawing a line in the competitive sand and refusing to accommodate offending teams, NASCAR sends the exact opposite message.
“Take your time, boys. Break all the rules you want. We (and the fans) will wait.”
As the lengthening list of repeat offenders clearly indicates, NASCAR’s punitive status quo is not working. The sanctioning body’s intended message is not getting through, and our sport continues to be seen as a place where everybody cheats and nobody cares.
It’s time for the boys in Daytona Beach to man up and begin swinging a bigger stick, retaking control of the garage area from a group of competitors that lately resembles a table full of recalcitrant children, refusing to eat their carrots.