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Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Scarlet… Asterisk? Giving Illegitimate Wins Their Due

Remember The Scarlet Letter? The novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which young Hester Prynne is sentenced to wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing, a constant reminder to all that she had committed adultery, the utmost sin in her Puritan lifestyle? You probably read it in high school and possibly vowed never to read another book again as long as you lived. It was a public humiliation which earned Hester scorn wherever she went.

But this is not a book review.

NASCAR could stand to take a few pointers from the Puritans. No, I’m not advocating that Tony Stewart wear a giant red “W” for whiner, nor that the FOX color analysts wear twin “As” for annoying the snot out of me every week, but in the swirl of controversy that surrounds each and every cry of “cheating” in the garage, why not make a team with an illegal car found in post-race inspection in a race they’ve won carry a permanent reminder?

No, not a big “C” on the hood.

Although that might be an effective form of public humiliation for some, but what I mean is a little less Puritanical.

There should be an asterisk in the record book.

For every winning car found to be too low or to have an oil-tank lid loose (or off) or to have some other modification that doesn’t fit the rulebook, the win should be marked with an asterisk. Since NASCAR isn’t going to take the win away, a move that would certainly be in the history books (the win was stripped in the very first race in what is now Sprint Cup, and even the most casual fan knows it), they should let fans in generations to come judge for themselves if the win was legit, but there should be that little telltale star and a footnote telling exactly what was found on the car.

THOMPSON: CARL EDWARDS PENALTY DECISION SHOULD BE SIMPLE

If a car is found to be illegal before practice, it is usually sent back to the garage to be fixed, punishing the team by costing them valuable track time. In the case of two Hendrick Motorsports cars at Infineon last year, it cost the chance to practice and qualify in an unprecedented and unrepeated move. In cases where the car has never hit the track, let alone in competition, the loss of practice is punishment enough – no competitive advantage was ever gained.

If a car is illegal after qualifying, the qualifying time is tossed. Again, the punishment fits the crime, although under the current qualifying system, teams in the Top 35 in owner points still get to race under their locked-in status while those who are not go home. That’s a product of an ineffective and ridiculous rule, however, and not the punishment itself, which is the same for all. Even if the car is locked in, the team faces the disadvantage of starting shotgun on the field, a situation that can leave even a fast car a lap down early, never to recover. Again, the punishment fits the crime.

But if a car is illegal after a race, the punishment is significantly less than the severity of infractions. There is, just as in the cases of any other penalty, a hefty fine and a points penalty, coupled with an extended vacation for the offending crew chief. Apparently now, if the team makes the Chase, they also lose the 10-point bonus for winning. And to me, cheating during a race is worse than trying to squeak a questionable body through inspection. Sure you can argue intent, but the bottom line is, if the car competed in is legal, then the finish is legit. Not so an in-race violation.

So, if the win stands, let the fans and historians decide if the team has committed the ultimate sin or simply had an opportune equipment failure. But don’t put the few questionable wins up beside the hundreds of legitimate wins over the years as if they are the same thing.

They are not the same thing.

So give each team who wins a race with an illegal car a scarlet letter of their own, an indelible mark that will make followers of the sport take pause and question the legitimacy of the win, or whether NASCAR went overboard. Either way, we deserve the right to decide… and the teams deserve the questions.

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