Wednesday, November 07, 2018

COMMENTARY: Latest NASCAR Penalties Highlight Need For Change

NASCAR announced today that three of the top four finishing cars in last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway had failed post-race technical inspections at the sanctioning body’s Research and Development Center in Concord, NC. 

Winner Kevin Harvick received an L1 penalty – the most severe in the sport -- for illegal modifications to his car’s rear spoiler. Runner-up Ryan Blaney’s machine was found with unapproved door front crush panels and fourth-place finisher Erik Jones’ car had infractions on the body and package tray that allowed air to flow illegally from inside the car. Both are  grounds for L1 penalties.

Harvick lost 40 championship driver and owner points, leaving him just three points above the cutoff line for advancement to next weekend’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Additionally, he will be without the services of crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith for the remainder of the season. Blaney and Jones each forfeited 20 points, with their crew chiefs fined $50,000 and their car chiefs suspended from the next two races.

This is not the first time NASCAR has busted race winners or other front runners with illegally modified cars. It happens all too often these days, and every time, the topic of water cooler talk changes instantly from what happened on the race track to what happened at the R&D Center.

There are a number of problems with that scenario and -- fair warning -- you’ve heard them all before.

NASCAR does itself a grave disservice in times like these by refusing to reveal the specifics of the violations. Were they something that was done quickly and clandestinely during a pit stop? Or were they something more nefarious, requiring weeks of planning and preparation at the shop, before somehow avoiding detection during multiple pre- and post-race inspections?

Harvick now in playoff danger
By not providing specifics, NASCAR allows – even encourages – fans to engage in wild speculation, ranging from a simple strip of tape to a complex, mechanical device that alters the angle and effect of the rear spoiler. Nothing good comes from speculation, and a simple explanatory statement from the sanctioning body could eliminate days of needless conjecture, with one stroke of the pen.

NASCAR also suffers from the timing of announcements like today’s. Ours is the only professional sport that throws a flag and walks-off penalty yardage, 72 hours after the game has ended. The fact that Kevin Harvick was the winner on Sunday, still the winner on Monday and STILL the winner on Tuesday… only to forfeit some of the proceeds of that win on Wednesday is patently inexplicable to casual fans. 

The optics are all wrong.

Today’s announcement – and others like it in the past – raise questions about the efficacy of the numerous at-track inspections conducted during race weekend. Granted, NASCAR is the only professional sport that includes a 3,400-pound mechanical device with literally thousands of moving parts. But if we’re missing serious violations like this at the race track – repeatedly -- perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to make fundamental changes to the inspection process, adding a lengthier, more stringent post-race examination for front-running cars.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end once the infraction is found.

NASCAR  is also the only professional sport that allows competitors to keep a significant portion of their ill-gotten gains. Harvick’s Stewart Haas Racing team earned a total of 60 championship points Sunday, with what NASCAR says was a seriously non-compliant race car. They were penalized only 40 of those 60 points, however, walking away with the equivalent of a 17th-place finish and -- more important – allowed to maintain their position just above the playoff cut line. For the record, NASCAR’s Penalty Grid calls for a deduction of between 10 to 40 championship points for an L1 penalty of this type, meaning that the sanctioning body dropped the heaviest hammer currently allowed by law. Based on the number of L1-level violations we’ve seen this season, however, perhaps it’s time for a new law and a heavier hammer.

Based on the current, widespread lack of compliance in the garage, It may be time for NASCAR to sharpen its teeth to a finer point and take a more meaningful – and painful -- bite out of crime.

A word now, if I may, on the view being expressed in some corners that teams should not be penalized for  infractions that evade detection earlier in the weekend. That makes as much sense as saying, “If you make it out the front door of the bank with a bag full of money, the cops should not be allowed to arrest you 20 miles down the road.”

If you catch your teenage daughter climbing out of her bedroom window at 2 AM, the excuse that, “I did it last night and didn’t get caught” is not going to hold much water. Right is right, wrong is wrong and illegal is illegal, no matter when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

The saddest part of today’s announcement is that it once again reinforces NASCAR’s image as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares. In the next four hours, we will hear from a plethora of NASCAR fans espousing such tired old lines as “you’re not cheating until you get caught,” and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”

I continue to hope for a certain degree of hypocrisy on the topic, hoping that NASCAR fans apply a higher standard of conduct to themselves and their children than they do to their favorite sport.

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