Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday September 23, 2010
Clint Bowyer’s win on Sunday at Loudon was one of NASCAR’s feel good stories in a season that has been largely unremarkable. Bowyer, the last driver to lock up a Chase berth with a torrid run at Richmond, dominated in New Hampshire, taking the checkers ahead of Denny Hamlin after Tony Stewart ran out of gas. But don’t be fooled by the fuel mileage angle; Bowyer had the best car all day long. He deserved to be in Victory Lane.
Bowyer’s car was taken for further technical inspection at NASCAR’s R&D center, as has become customary for the winner’s car. A week prior, Bowyer’s team had been warned that its Richmond Chevy was dangerously close to being outside NASCAR’s tolerances on some measurements. It was legal, but by less than a hairbreadth. The team was admonished not to do it again in a series of face-to-face meetings, conversations that culminated long before the haulers came to Loudon and parked.
A few days later, it appeared that Bowyer’s car had sailed through Sunday’s postrace inspection, as the car was loaded up and taken to NASCAR’s high-tech R&D center just to verify its legality. It failed teardown.
NASCAR reacted the way it has in recent years, with a six-race suspension for crew chief Shane Wilson (the win was Wilson’s first as a crew chief) and car chief Chad Haney, a $150,000 fine for both Wilson and owner Richard Childress, and a fine of 150 points for Childress and Bowyer.
The fine isn’t cheap, but the points will cost this team the most: Bowyer dropped from second, just 35 markers off Denny Hamlin’s lead, all the way to the bottom of the Chase barrel, 185 back – a hole almost certainly too deep to dig out of. Just like that, his Cinderella story of pulling a surprise Chase upset from the 12th seed is dead.
Pressed for comment through a teleconference Wednesday, NASCAR’s 25 minutes worth of political jargon centered around what they termed a definitive case: their penalty was just.
I don’t think so. Once again, NASCAR fails to see reality.
The sanctioning body made a couple of big mistakes here. First, Bowyer was allowed to retain the win and did not lose all of the points he earned. Should Hamlin, officially second but the first driver to take the checkers in a legal car, lose the title by less than those 45 points that Bowyer was allowed to retain, he ought to be livid. Not to mention, the win will be recorded in NASCAR history as if the car was legal — no asterisk, no footnote. As a result, Bowyer also landed a spot in the 2011 All-Star race.
NASCAR says that they allow a driver who won in an illegal car to keep the victory because they want fans at the track to know definitively who won before they go home. That’s kind of an insult to race fans’ intelligence, in my opinion. I think most fans would rather see a legal car win, even if that means an altered result later — certainly, race fans are intelligent enough to understand why it happened, even if they wouldn’t be happy they witnessed it. If I were in the stands, I certainly wouldn’t feel cheated if I paid to see a race and the winner was changed a few days later – as long as the reason was made clear. But from a fan’s perspective, I would feel cheated every time the win goes to a driver in an illegal car.
The sanctioning body has said that there is no precedent for stripping a win, but that’s a falsehood, as any old-timer will tell you. In the very first sanctioned race in what is now the Cup Series, the first car to cross the finish line was driven by Glenn Dunnaway. But Dunnaway’s car failed inspection because the rear springs had been altered outside NASCAR’s rules, so Big Bill France did what he felt was the only thing to do – he gave the race win with its points and purse to Jim Roper, driver of the first legal car to take the checkered flag. Dunnaway’s car owner sued, and a judge threw his case out. NASCAR’s rule was law, a strong precedent that initially held up in almost any circumstance.
But then came the growth – and the money – of the modern era, meaning now NASCAR won’t do the only right thing anymore. Do we really live in a society with such a sense of entitlement that winning at all costs is okay? Handing a team the same (or worse — it’s been done!) penalty for winning a race in an illegal car as they would have gotten if it had never set a wheel on the track isn’t right. Pushing the limits to see if you can get away with it is part of the game, and if you get caught, you fix it and present a legal car, probably incurring some hefty fines and point penalties. But if you alter it, then race it, then NASCAR should take that finishing position and give it to someone who deserves it. Or at least that’s how it should be. Until then, nothing is going to deter teams from “creative engineering.”
On the other hand, NASCAR is proposing tougher future crackdowns for similar situations. The sanctioning body hinted that they will dock 200 or more points next time — in essence, all of the points from an illegal win and then some.
That’s wrong, too.
First of all, the win would still stand. Strike one. Second, now you’re talking docking points that were earned legally. That’s just even more wrong. Strike two. Third, the win goes in the record books as if the car was legal and slightly cheapens the legal wins. Strike three, you’re out.
Just grow a pair and take the win. Seriously.
The other mistake here was NASCAR’s handling of Bowyer’s Richmond car, which was barely within the tolerance set for the area of the chassis. The team was warned, and that should have been the end of it. That the “story” was released at all was ridiculous. It’s not a story. The same thing happened a year ago with a pair of Hendrick Motorsports cars, which were legal by less than the thickness of a piece of paper. Those two cars were “randomly” inspected after every race for the remainder of the year and found legal. There never was a story, and all releasing the so-called news did was fuel the wrong kind of media and fan attention, something the sport can ill afford to begin with.
Granted, this time is a little different because not only was Bowyer’s car found outside of tolerance the very next week, but it was outside of tolerance in the same area that the team had been warned about the previous week. That does look a little incriminating for the team, makes it a little harder to buy the excuse they gave: That the track wrecker damaged the car pushing it to Victory Lane or it was the congratulatory rubs from the other cars. Often something does break, or get bent in competition, and that can cause a funky measurement. But usually, NASCAR allows for that if the team can prove it. Last week’s story actually gives credence to NASCAR’s assertion that the No. 33 was altered before the race. But the sport still shouldn’t have been releasing that type of information, as it leads to unnecessary speculation and bias. I repeat: it is not even a story!
Clint Bowyer’s team apparently made a mistake at Loudon, pushing the limits too far, and for that, they deserve a penalty. However, NASCAR, as is all too typical these days, completely mishandled the situation, failing to properly punish Bowyer and his team by stripping the win, and with it all of the championship points and the All-Star berth that comes with the territory.
NASCAR then compounded their mistake in typical NASCAR fashion — by overreacting and promising a completely unfair point fine to the next offender. And then they capped it off by releasing a non-story, raising suspicion and perhaps unfairly biasing the media and fans against Bowyer’s team. Face it, if that had never come to light, it would be easier to sympathize with Bowyer. Perhaps the team was playing with fire and pushing the limits, but when the car is legal there is zero purpose in spreading the word in such a way as to imply that it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t, Bowyer should have been stripped of the points after Richmond, which would have given his Chase spot to a presumably legal Ryan Newman. No matter what, officials didn’t handle this particular situation with discretion.
The sanctioning body of a sport owes it to the paying fans to be fair and correct in their rulings, and NASCAR has failed the fans in that respect. That’s no way to treat the participants and it’s no way to treat the fans, as the sport needs to make necessary changes – not frivolous ones. The record books should be filled with legal wins (or at least those where NASCAR never found fault), and the fans should go home knowing that NASCAR will do the right thing, even if that means they see a different winner in the morning. It’s time to fix what’s wrong and stop trying to fix what isn’t.
That is how NASCAR can stop the bleeding.
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