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Thompson in Turn 5: Carl Edwards’s Penalty – The Decision Should Be Simple

In a departure from NASCAR’s standard operating procedure, fines and penalties for rule infractions committed at Las Vegas were not announced on the Tuesday following a Sunday race. Of primary interest to stock car fans and Carl Edwards‘s No. 99 Roush Fenway camp is what the repercussions will be for a rule violation detected in post-race inspection following Edwards’ UAW-Dodge 400 victory. The oil reservoir tank lid was not securely fastened as required by NASCAR; it’s a gaffe which could possibly have given the No. 99 a small aerodynamic advantage. Edwards said this week on SPEED TV that a bolt backed out of the cover, but that he believed that he would be penalized. I would hope that’s correct, and that NASCAR follows its newfound consistency in dishing out sizable fines and penalties.

The sport only needs to follow this “rule of thumb,” a violation is a violation is a violation, and is a violation! This just makes the whole thing simpler to sort out. Just break it all down to its lowest common denominator; besides, it eliminates all the “Yeah, buts,” that can be argued in virtually every case of non-compliance to the rules. Perhaps a bolt did back out, or maybe it was intentionally removed. It doesn’t matter, the car was illegal without the cover being securely fastened.

I didn’t come to this conclusion because I do not understand there are quite often valid extenuating circumstances surrounding the cause of an infraction, but because it has become clear through the years NASCAR, when tasked with attempting to mete out “fairness” in their decisions, opens the door in the process to non-productive debate and derision. In the end, if NASCAR stays consistent in the penalties they impose on teams that do not present a racecar that complies with the rules for competition, fans and competitors can at least understand it – even if they don’t agree.

In a perfect world, every non-compliance issue would be thoroughly investigated by NASCAR to determine whether there was intent to violate the rules before rendering their decisions. However, in reality, even after an impeccable review of all the factors leading up to a ruling by the sanctioning body, the decision will still boil down to a judgment call having to be made by NASCAR. More often than not, teams caught red-handed breaking the rules will insist that the violation was “unintentional.” Now, if all the involved parties could be believed beyond a shadow of a doubt, that certainly would be different. But in absence of a “truth serum” being available to the sanctioning body, they in the end are just winging it with any decision they make involving determining “intent.”

NASCAR’s been down that road for the last 60 years and have demonstrated repeatedly that they are not particularly good at making consistent, across-the-board disciplinary decisions when they start micro-analyzing the factors that contributed to a car being illegal. Weighted decisions by their nature only create more questions from fans and others within the NASCAR community, and accusations of favoritism immediately come to the forefront when a team owner or driver perceived to be “favorite sons” of the organization are given less onerous penalties – based on intent and competitive advantage considerations – for a similar infraction than others have received. These suspicions are generally followed by accusations that the governing body “plays favorites” and are putting its own vested business considerations ahead of assuring a level playing field for its competitors.

Whether the allegations of malfeasance are accurate or not, the damage to the racing organization’s reputation is questioned each and every time time they make such a judgment call. That’s not the kind of headlines that NASCAR or, for that matter any other legitimate sports entity wants to constantly have to defend themselves against. So, why put yourself through the ringer like that?

With the introduction of the new generation of Cup car last season, the sanctioning body has made a concerted effort to move away from the “decision by discretion” game. And as the season progressed, they tagged some of the sports’ biggest names and their teams with new, tougher punishments. In addition, they did it across the board, as well. Some of the sport’s biggest stars: Dale Earnhardt Jr., four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon¬†and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and their crews have all been subjected to similar, more severe fines and penalties. And in each of those cases, there were arguable circumstances surrounding each violation. The rules committee did not in those instances attempt to determine the degree of intent that the involved teams had in breaking the written rules, or what, if any on-track advantage the violation gained, or would have gained the violators. All they said was that the cars were illegal – nothing more.

Pure and simple, I would say.

Once the unavoidable fan-biased bellyaching subsided and the fines, suspensions and points deductions were history, by and large the racing community seemed better able to accept them simply because at least they were imposed equally. The racecars in those cases last year were not legal; they were proven to be inarguably in violation of the rules. And there was no hint of preferential treatment being given to either team owner or driver by NASCAR. As a result, the sport established a new, easy to understand process for determining punishment; now, the trick going forward is not to veer off that road.

Ironically, NASCAR’s new “get tough” tact of levying 100-point deductions, $100,000 fines and crew chief suspensions last season was considered by many not to be severe enough. There seems to be a general consensus that repeat offenders, most noticeably the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team of Johnson, should be dealt with more harshly. And I, too, subscribe to that point of view. Just as in a court of law, the penalties should be progressively more punitive; with multiple violations, incresed sanctions should include disallowing the team or driver to participate in a set number of races, dependent on the number for chronic violations of the rules they have committed. The goal here is to send a message loud and clear to competitors that NASCAR insists, in the interest of fairness to all the competitors, that all entries are legal to race.

While still waiting for the decision to be handed down from the powers that be, I still cannot be 100% confident in Edwards’s case that they will have the wherewithal and fortitude necessary to stick with the recent course that they have charted in the last year. But I certainly am hoping they do!

And that’s my view from Turn 5.

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