Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Following Saturday’s Nationwide Series event, Joe Gibbs Racing was accused of tampering with their race cars during post-race inspection. By placing magnets underneath the accelerator pedals, JGR hoped to reduce the amount of horsepower NASCAR would read off their chassis dyno as they researched whether more rules changes were needed to equalize horsepower between manufacturers.
The sport’s reaction to this transgression was swift – and it was severe. Crew chiefs Jason Ratcliff and Dave Rogers have been indefinitely suspended, along with five other crew members accused of participating in the project. Both the No. 18 and No. 20 cars lost 150 championship car owner points, and drivers Joey Logano and Tony Stewart lost 150 driver points as a result of the incident.
It was one of the harshest penalties handed down by the sport this decade; but were those penalties far too much for a scenario that didn’t occur until after the race? Or did NASCAR let JGR get off easy for a deliberate violation that – if left undetected – could have kept the sport from permanently changing the rules to level the playing field?
JGR’s Nationwide Program Got Off Easy
Throughout the 2008 Nationwide Series season, Joe Gibbs Racing has made it look so simple. From the drop of the green flag at Daytona – where JGR posted a one-two finish with Stewart and Kyle Busch – to Busch’s latest win at ORP, their Nationwide teams have scored a total of six poles and 14 wins. 13 of those victories have come with their Sprint Cup drivers behind the wheel, with the lone exception coming courtesy of up-and-coming 18-year-old Logano.
But just as they have made competing in the series look easy, NASCAR let JGR off easy on Wednesday when they announced penalties for the most blatant episode of cheating we’ve seen this season. At first glance, the penalties laid down by the sport seem harsh enough. You’ve got points deductions… heavy fines… and indefinite suspensions of crew chiefs and other key race personnel. But upon further review, this punishment does not come close to fitting the crime.
JGR was unquestionably found to be deliberately tampering with NASCAR’s inspection process, impeding the very testing the sanctioning body relies upon to preserve the parity that its second-tier series requires. At an even more despicable level, this maneuver was an example of a high-powered, high-funded racing juggernaut attempting to further beat into submission a field of smaller teams and drivers that already can’t keep up with their resources, manpower and RPMs. And before anyone screams innovation is what racing is all about, let’s not forget that this is not the Sprint Cup Series we’re talking about here. This is the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s AAA, lower-tier division that relies on smaller teams simply to maintain its existence, teams that need the integrity of rules to remain intact to survive. However, despite the consequences that would ensue if the cheating went undetected, the penalties levied by NASCAR officials are not far removed from those they’ve handed down in separate, lower severity instances this year.
Unfortunately, as any fan knows, there is no such thing as precedent in NASCAR. So, let’s take the penalties as they are and look at what effects they actually had. First off, drivers Logano and Stewart each lost 150 driver points. But since neither one of them is pursuing the Nationwide Series title, this has no impact on anyone – it’s a truly insignificant reduction.
Next, the No. 18 and No. 20 cars both lost 150 points in the owner standings, another slap on the wrist that comes with minimal impact. The No. 18 car has not attempted all of the races run in 2008, meaning that no matter how many points the team accrues, they cannot earn a “locked-in” spot in the Nationwide Series field. The No. 20 car, on the other hand, is running for the owners’ championship, and after this penalty now holds an oh-so-precarious lead of 168 points over the second-place team of Richard Childress Racing. Ouch, that one hurt.
Granted, there are numerous engine tuners, crew members, and most notably crew chiefs Jason Ratcliff and Dave Rogers who were suspended indefinitely from NASCAR. JGR went above and beyond the sport’s ruling following the penalties, pledging to suspend any named crew member for the rest of the season who was involved in the incident in question. These suspensions, however, are not going to keep these JGR personnel out of the race shop; and judging from previous suspensions of crew chiefs, they’re not going to be of much detriment to the performance of the No. 18 and No. 20 cars. Just look at the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson in the Cup Series… they won the sport’s biggest race a few years back despite having their crew chief suspended. JGR’s own Rogers demonstrated how much influence a crew chief or personnel can have on race day even when not present in person, describing on ESPN’s broadcast of the Montreal race how fellow JGR personnel – thousands of miles away in North Carolina – spent the race texting him setup notes and suggestions atop the pit box. Now, he’ll be the one doing the texting – and with all the communication technology enjoyed by upper-tier teams like this one, it really won’t matter who is sitting atop the pit box for both the No. 18 and No. 20.
The long and short of it is points penalties and crew suspensions are old news and are not proving effective in curbing cheating – and there is no better evidence of this than this latest episode with JGR. Despite actively laying waste to the Nationwide Series field week in and week out, this team decided to cheat anyway. Despite serving as hardly anything more than a vessel for Cup regulars Busch, Denny Hamlin and Stewart to score more trophies and purse money they don’t need – they decided to cheat anyway. And despite being able to have both of its cars finish in the top 10 at Michigan in the face of NASCAR’s limitations on Toyota horsepower – they decided to cheat anyway.
Because of that, these teams should pay the ultimate price; a ban from actual NASCAR competition as punishment for circumventing the rules. Unfortunately, the sport missed a golden opportunity to make an example out of JGR. Despite having blatant evidence that a team backed by an unpopular manufacturer and fielding some very unpopular drivers was cheating in a second-tier series that they’re dominating, the sport instead came up with the old points-and-fine routine. And if last week’s incident at Michigan is any indication of the future of cheating, its actions that’ll prove equivalent to doing nothing over the long run. – Bryan Davis Keith
The JGR Penalties Are Too Harsh
Did JGR try to intentionally affect the outcome of the chassis dyno tests at Michigan by altering the distance that their throttle could travel? Absolutely. Is that action detrimental to stock car racing and several other violations? Most definitely. But were the penalties handed down fairly? Not in my opinion.
Let’s start with the 150-point driver penalty Bryan mentioned above. They’re completely uncalled for in this scenario, as these men neither participated nor benefited from the actions of their teams. It has been repeatedly acknowledged that Stewart and Logano had no knowledge of what occurred, and were not near the vehicles when the purported magnet placement happened. If that’s the case, why should they have to pay a penalty for not only something they didn’t do, but something that didn’t affect the outcome of where they finished in the race? Since neither is running for the drivers’ championship, this is somewhat a moot point, but it does set a precedent and in the future could affect a driver who is in the battle for the title.
Moving onto the team itself, there is no doubt that the owner, Joe Gibbs, should be docked points for this incident – after all, he is responsible for the actions of his organization and any activities performed by his employees. Losing 150 points really has no significance to the No. 18 team, but the No. 20 car is leading in the owners’ championship. That is a hefty chunk out of what was a pretty comfortable lead before the penalty, and should not be understated; to me, 168 points is a deficit that can now be overcome.
Additionally, there is no question that the crew chiefs should have been fined. Even though they are in the Nationwide Series, I actually think $50,000 is a little light; however, giving each crew chief an indefinite suspension – followed up by JGR suspending each man the rest of the season? That is simply too much. The teams were trying to influence the outcome of the tests so they would not be handicapped any further; remember, the Toyotas have already had their horsepower reduced by NASCAR over the perceived advantage their engines have over the rest of the competition. Other crew chiefs have done things to try to gain an advantage during a race and have likewise been suspended – but it was always for a definite period of time. I’d say a suspension for these actions is certainly appropriate; but there should be a finite period handed down by NASCAR so that the teams can plan ahead and the organization knows what lies ahead of them. Perhaps the sanctioning body had some advance knowledge of what Gibbs was going to do; but again, these are penalties which will set a precedent for similar instances moving forward.
Of course, NASCAR has to rule the sport with an iron fist, and their implementation of penalties will certainly determine how seriously teams look at cheating. However, handing down suspensions that are open ended for activities that relate to teams trying to gain an advantage with their racecars is simply unreasonable. I agree with indefinite suspensions for drivers or crew members who are found to use drugs, but when it comes to suspensions related to performance, they need to have a definite time frame. As such, the penalties handed down were simply too harsh – and set a dangerous pattern for how NASCAR’s going to handle these types of scenarios when they pop up in the future. – Mike Neff