The Frontstretch: What's In A Suspension? by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 4, 2007

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What's In A Suspension?

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday July 4, 2007

 

This past weekend's race at Loudon, New Hampshire marked the 8th race of the Car of Tomorrow, the sixth race of Tony Eury Jr's suspension, and the first race off for both Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte after their infractions last week at Sonoma. It's the circle of life, Simba; as one suspension ends, two more begin without so much as a hesitation with NASCAR’s new, by-the-book mentality in place.

However, it was widely reported all weekend long that even though Knaus and LeTarte were indeed suspended, they were still at the track in some capacity. NASCAR reasoned that while they cannot be physically with their team, they are still permitted on certain track property and can remain eligible to pursue certain types of communication with their organization (namely, cell phones, IM, etc.).

All this got me to thinking: what the heck is in a suspension, anyway?

No, I don't mean springs, shocks, sway bars, or control arms. With NASCAR's new get-tough-on-cheatin' policy that they have for the first time in 59 years seen fit to enforce, we have established a new precedent of levying exorbitant point and monetary fines to anyone who dares exploit the Car of Tomorrow in any way, shape, or form. With fines that have been increased from the standard 25-point fine to now 100-points and $100,000, crew chiefs are now being sent home faster than Vanna White can make a letter appear on Wheel of Fortune.

Well,…kinda.

NASCAR Director of Competition Robin Pemberton explained that the offenders in question were not allowed to work on the cars or be in the pit box, but still allowed in the vicinity if they wanted to buy a ticket or watch the race from a motorhome. NASCAR has maintained that they would not make an attempt to police the communication that might occur between the teams and their crew chiefs who have been disciplined by the sanctioning body.

As expected, and as we have seen in the past, the physical absence of the crew chief amounted to absolutely nothing. Jeff Gordon came within a half a car length of winning his fifth race this season, and Jimmie Johnson ran comfortably all day, coming home in fifth place, his best finish since a third place run at Darlington, six races prior.

Now, if NASCAR was looking to make a point to the teams and crews, why not ACTUALLY suspend the crew chiefs for real? Confiscate their credentials, and treat them as a rowdy Talladega fan who's been caught firing for effect on his least favorite driver cutting donuts on the Frontstrech. Since virtually all of the race teams are based around the Charlotte area, the suspended crew chief in question should report to a NASCAR facility to meet with officials the weekend of the race. No communication should be allowed during the day, and there certainly should be no communication during the race. While the term "suspension" carries some weight and sounds severe, it really sounds much worse than it actually is.

With technological advances such as e-mail, text messaging, Instant Messaging through the Internet, and NEXTEL's own 2-way walkie-talkie feature, the suspension just makes communicating a little more difficult and covert than it normally would be. If the crew chiefs are right outside the track, does it make much of a difference if they are sitting there in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt rather than fire retardant Nomex? It's kind of a joke, and insulting to the fans’ intelligence, who are being assured that the rules have been enforced by the most literal interpretation and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Please. This is the equivalent of a drunk driver being pulled over by the police, blowing a .20, and then only being escorted home, and issued a $40 ticket for loitering.

In 2006, when Chad Knaus was suspended for a month after installing an adjustable rear window in the back of the Lowe's Chevrolet for Daytona 500 qualifying, one of the principle topics being discussed was not how Darian Grubb would perform in relief, but rather how they were going to get around the suspension. It was roundly accepted that they wouldn't suffer all that much since they could still communicate with their exiled leader.

They responded in kind by winning the Daytona 500. Things really fell apart the next week with a 2nd place at California. They managed to rebound and win the following week at Las Vegas.

A suspension. Oh no….The horrah!!!!!

See a pattern developing? The rationale behind the ever-increasing fines of points and money has been "$100,000 isn't anything to these guys, so maybe the points and sending their crew chief home will get their attention.”

If by "get their attention" you mean, "win with regularity", then yes, you probably have gotten their attention, and subsequently encouraged the practice that much more. The crew chief gets to study and plan race strategy from a climate and element controlled environment. No screaming 9,000 rpm engines. No 140 degree track temperatures. A vantage point slightly more dynamic than sitting on top of a toolbox.

The six weeks that Tony Eury, Jr. has been absent from the pit box, the No. 8 has posted five top 13 finishes and two top 5's; all the while enduring the announcement that their driver (and likely the aforementioned crew chief) would not be returning for 2008. He scored his best finish of the year at Loudon with Tony Gibson as crew chief, a 4th place effort.

Moreover, these large teams such as Hendrick and DEI have the opportunity to employ the depth of their race teams, placing highly qualified individuals in the catbird seat, in a trial-by-fire exercise on the grandest stage. Not only do they let the crew chief recharge his batteries a little, a new guy gets to step in and prove his mettle as well.

This is not to cast aspersions or belittle the efforts of the teams or personnel in question. Far from it. If anything, it is an extension of their job descriptions and roles: Get the most out of the equipment you can, pushing the rules as far as the sanctioning body will allow. In this case, it means going Dick Cheney and operating out of an undisclosed location, making strategic decisions and offering suggestions from a new and unique perspective. And even if they weren't actually on site, and were back at their race shops, what would they be doing? Right, applying their attention to detail and ingenuity to the cars that will be traveling to the next five races.

With some of the brightest minds in motorsports like Knaus, Letarte, and Eury, Jr., that is hardly a handicap. If anything, it would be considered a blessing.

My take is this: If you're really going to suspend somebody, do it right. Suspend the crew chief AND the driver. Fining a guy 100 points who has nearly a 300-point lead that will evaporate in two months with the onset of The Chase anyway, is kind of silly and ineffective at best.

If it's a show-trial you're trying to put on, save everyone's time and let the crew chiefs work on the cars like they have for the last six decades. Give them a gray area in which to work and employ their experience and talents, push the rules and engineer these cars as they have in the past. Right now the COT is running on 3 wheels in the middle of the corner, suffering impromptu wheel lock-ups entering a turn, tire smoke billowing out from under the cars, and still, 6 months into it, "not driving right".

As much as I hate drawing parallels to stick-and-ball sports, in this instance it is appropriate. If a coach or manager is ejected from a game, it can make a noticeable difference to the outcome of the contest. If it's compliance they're truly after, NASCAR needs to take the ball away from them, and send them home. While the crew chief might be considered the coach of the team, the driver is still the quarterback. Until he misses a start, no one is really going to notice or take it to heart.

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boomer#8
07/04/2007 05:59 AM
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hell, if that’s the trend, maybe Zippy should do some tweaking in the “gray area”, get suspended, and then i’ll get another laugh watching Tony pant his ass up another fence!!! ha ha ha

Ed
07/04/2007 07:06 AM
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Good article. If the crew chiefs aren’t still working from their motorhomes, then anyone can apparently do their jobs and win. NASCAR will not do anything to hamper a favored team’s chances of competing and winning. After all, ticket sales and sponsor money are more important than actually policing the “show.” I won’t call it a sport anymore, because, like wrestling, NASCAR’s rules really don’t apply. The childish little driver fights and mock suspensions sell tickets and draw attention. It’s interesting that other racing series don’t seem to have problems policing their teams. The penalty box is used frequently and childish behavior on the part of the drivers is rare. There are also very few on course issues. Rules violations are taken care of quickly and severely.

Scott
07/04/2007 07:54 AM
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Great article and a great idea. It was widely reported that these crew chiefs were still at the track. If anyone thinks that they spent the entire weekend at the track grilling and drinking beer between the races, they are crazy.

NASCAR should start sending the drivers and the crew chiefs home. They should have, especially in the case of Johnson and Gordon, told them to load their cars up and go home since they found the infractions before qualifying began.

Unfortunately, none of this will happen. NASCAR has become too much about the money and sponsors. They are too busy trying to protect the sponsors. They would be worried about how much it would hurt Lowe’s and Dupont if that happened.

Pop
07/04/2007 10:13 AM
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Funny that now that Eury Jr. is finished serving his suspension they are now talking about changing the rules. It was widely known that he has been at every track except Sonoma – some of the pictures are quite humorous. Guess it wasn’t a big deal until LeTarte and Knaus started doing the same thing.

Chris2
07/04/2007 01:14 PM
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When they first started this whole suspension trend some time back with Knaus at Daytona I thought like Vito, “How is this going to be enforced?”. As said by you and others, with a laptop, instant messenging, cell phone, and tv he can still call the shots from anywhere. I didn’t realize that NASCAR still allowed them to show up at the track. How crazy is that. I say send the whole team home..only takes once and everyone else would get the message. The downside to that of course is that its NASCAR that dictates the suspensions and you really can’t count on them to make a consistant call..if they were to do it they’d probably bag a team outside of the top-35,( stupid rule), so that it wouldn’t hurt the top guys. That way they could say they are tough on enforcement without being all that tough..(except of course for the team that gets sent home of course).

Tom
07/08/2007 06:56 AM
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I remember back when Billy Martin (Tigers, Yankes) would get tossed regularly from games, he would have a phone line directly to the “dougout” to run the show. So what’s the big deal, if NASCAR really wanted to get someone’s attention, DISQUILIFY them for the event, that’s right send the whole team home. No points, no money, no sponsor visability, no nothing! Like they were never there. Also they (NASCAR) needs a roving tech team that can answer “gray area” questions before they get to the track. Expensive yes, but in the long run maybe not.

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