Penalties, penalties everywhere at Daytona. NASCAR handed down a total of five of them on Tuesday and Wednesday, the most severe coming late Wednesday afternoon when the sanctioning body announced a penalty against the team of driver Michael Waltrip following a strange substance in the intake manifold in both pre- and post-qualifying inspection. NASCAR confiscated the Toyota Camry, and when the substance appeared a third time, levied suspensions, point fines and a monetary fine on crew chief David Hyder.
Just to recap, on Tuesday, four crew chiefs were suspended for unapproved aerodynamic modifications, including all three top wrenches for Evernham Motorsports. Rodney Childers (Scott Riggs) and Josh Browne (Elliott Sadler) were suspended for two races and fined $25,000. In addition, both drivers and Ray Evernham lost 25 owner/driver points for violations found prior to qualifying.
Kenny Francis and Robbie Reiser, who head the teams of Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, were both suspended for four weeks and fined $50,000 for their aerodynamic work, which was discovered after the cars had made their qualifying runs. The drivers and car owners, Evernham and Jack Roush, were also penalized 50 points.
However, the Michael Waltrip Racing organization was hit the hardest for violations of the NASCAR rulebook, sections 12-4-A (actions detrimental to stock car racing), 12-4-Q (car, car part components and/or equipment not conforming to NASCAR rules) and 20-15.2C (gasoline must not be blended with alcohols, ethers or other oxygenates), after an oxygenating substance was found in their intake manifold. NASCAR officials noticed the substance when issuing the team’s carburetor restrictor plate and confiscated the manifold. The substance was found again, the car impounded, and when it appeared a third time, both Hyder and the team’s Vice President of Competition were escorted from the Speedway on an indefinite suspension. Waltrip and his wife Buffy (listed as owner of record) were docked 100 points, and Waltrip will have to race a backup car in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday. Hyder was slapped with a $100,000 fine, the largest in NASCAR history, and will likely be fired from his position with MWR.
NASCAR said in 2006 that they were going to take a hard line on rule-bending, and they did so, beginning with the Daytona 500 when the No. 48 car driven by Jimmie Johnson was discovered with an illegal aerodynamic enhancement. Crew chief Chad Knaus was escorted from the track to begin a four-week suspension, coupled with a fine. No points were taken then, but NASCAR chose to ramp up the punishment this year when some teams were not deterred by the severity of last season’s penalties (Johnson won the Daytona 500, anyway) by adding a points fine. It was the next logical move in stopping teams from having an unfair advantage on race day, and a fair move. NASCAR clearly did the right thing in these aero-tampering cases.
Then came the engine violation. Fuel additives have always been, in the sanctioning body’s eyes, the worst offense of them all. Historically, you just don’t want to mess with fuel or tires. If aerodynamic modifications are an unfair advantage, messing with fuel is outright cheating. At first glance, Waltrip and Company were hit hard and fast for their indiscretion. But NASCAR did NOT ramp up the punishment for this type of violation in the manner they did for the others. In 2000, Jeremy Mayfield‘s car was found in post-race inspection with a performance-enhancing fuel additive still in the tank. Mayfield’s crew chief, Peter Sospenzo, was suspended and fined, and Mayfield was docked 156 points – the difference between first and last place on the track. Still, 100 points could set the stage for Waltrip’s entire season, considering his position with the Top-35 rule that was not in effect in 2000. Not driving for one of the “locked-in” teams that finished within the Top 35 in 2006, Waltrip has five races to put the car in that elite group while qualifying in on speed for each one, hoping to guarantee himself a starting spot by race six. Now, should Waltrip miss the Daytona 500, his team could head to California with negative owner points – a deep hole to climb out of, ensuring his struggles to qualify each week would continue indefinitely.
Don’t get me wrong; working the grey areas between black-and-white rules has been a part of NASCAR since the first race of the series, when the winner had the win stripped for a rules violation. It’s a team’s job to try to find an advantage anywhere they can, and a long-standing part of the sport. But when they step over that thin line, they stand to gain points over teams that have completely legal racecars. Aerodynamic modifications constantly toe that line, and fuel additives long jump over it. To NASCAR’s credit, they have done what they have said they would in these instances, and with the exception of the point fine against Waltrip, they have been fair and consistent. Wake up, crews – now, NASCAR is watching!
The one place where NASCAR has missed the boat is in Daytona’s unique qualifying process. All the teams except for Waltrip’s have locked-in status via the Top-35 rule; if NASCAR really wanted to send a message, that status should be stripped for the other four cars, forcing those teams to earn a spot the way the non-locked teams have to in the Gatorade Duels. THAT would send the teams a much stronger message; let them race in with a legal car, and if they can’t, give that starting spot to a legal car instead. What a way to be fair and effective.
Still, if nothing else this Speedweeks, NASCAR has sent a strong message that rule bending will not be tolerated on any level and swiftly and strongly punished when discovered. Only time will tell if the punishments will serve as the deterrent they’re meant to be. In the meantime, the teams involved this week are now at a distinct disadvantage. Whether they can overcome that disadvantage is up to them… but they have only themselves to blame for their problems.