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Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Slap on the Wrist? NASCAR Chooses Inconsistency Over Fairness… Again

You could almost miss it perusing some popular NASCAR websites. It’s kind of innocuous on NASCAR Online with only a small box dedicated to it, buried under a story on the Sprint Cup title race, another on Richard Petty and a third on the destruction at Talladega. The story itself is short, too, outlining a penalty handed down at Talladega. NASCAR’s statement is as follows: “The No. 46 car was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4-J (any determination by NASCAR officials that the race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR required rules); and 20-2.3A (unapproved added weight location and unapproved added weight — lower A-frames were filled with weight pellets) of the 2010 NASCAR rule book. Crew chief Thomas Tucker has been fined $50,000 and indefinitely suspended from NASCAR. Car chief Richard Boga and team manager Tony Furr have also been indefinitely suspended from NASCAR. Driver Michael McDowell and car owner Dusty Whitney have been penalized with the loss of 50 driver and owner points, respectively.” Huh, someone got caught cheating and NASCAR issued a penalty. Interesting.

Wait, what?

50 driver and owner points? $50,000 fine? Indefinite suspension (which, dollars to donuts means until the end of the year)? Really?

It was just seven races ago that Clint Bowyer was docked 150 points, the team fined $150,000 and crew chief Shane Wilson suspended for six weeks for a frame rail mount that was a fraction of a fraction of an inch outside of NASCAR’s tolerance. Though the fine was later reduced, the points penalty was not, resulting in Bowyer languishing at the back of the Chase field despite having won more Chase races in 2010 than any other driver.

And a team caught blatantly cheating (Filling the frame with pellets is about the oldest trick in the book that you can still use. And there is no reason to do it except to make the car lighter when it is removed. A lighter car is faster and therefore has an advantage during a race) was given a third of the penalty that Bowyer’s team was? Really?

I don’t have an issue with the penalty issued to Bowyer’s team. I do have a problem with this mess.

Remember when fans came down on NASCAR for penalizing owner/driver Carl Long after the All-Star event for an illegal engine? The general outcry was that the engine could have been damaged during the race, and that the penalty was so harsh that it nearly put Long out of racing altogether. I can’t say for sure that ts the result of that, but if it is, shame on NASCAR. I’m all for NASCAR doing anything and everything to help out the smaller teams like Whitney Motorsports make it in the sport. Everything except this.

Part of NASCAR’s justification may be that the violation was discovered in opening technical inspection and not after the race. But if that’s the case, why was the car ever allowed to make a qualifying run? In 2007, when the cars of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson failed opening tech for a template violation, neither driver was allowed to practice or qualify his car, a penalty which NASCAR has never imposed since. A template violation is an effort to skirt the rules, to be sure. But buckshot in the A-frame? That’s not skirting the rules, that’s throwing them in the trash can. Given that, why on earth was the same penalty not imposed on McDowell’s team at Talladega?

Had the No. 46 not been allowed to qualify, McDowell would have missed the race. Based on his 35th-place finish, that would have cost him $71,025 and 58 points. Added to the post-race penalty, the resulting $121,025/108 point fine still doesn’t touch Bowyer’s. As it stands, a team brought a car to the track that was purposely built illegally and was barely given a slap on the wrist, where Bowyer (along with Gordon and Johnson in 2007) had the book thrown at him for something that may or may not have been a deliberate attempt to break NASCAR’s rules.

With their credibility at an all-time low, the sanctioning body can ill afford to flaunt the inconsistency they showed with this latest penalty. Not only was it wildly inconsistent with recent penalties handed down, but after the penalty on Bowyer, NASCAR came out and said that the penalty next time would be harsher. Yet, when next time rolled around, they backed off and gave a slap on the wrist. One can only imagine what a slap in the face that is to Bowyer and his team. It’s also a slap in the face to race fans. NASCAR must not think fans are very bright if they think nobody is going to notice that they let blatant cheating slide just weeks after a heavy penalty was issued for a far less ostentatious bending of the rules.

Fans aren’t asking for much in this type of situation, just consistency. A fan should be able to look at a situation and know about how the sanctioning body is going to handle it-at least within the ballpark. But NASCAR has, once again, proven that they aren’t trustworthy in the one area that then need to be the most. Often, NASCAR is accused of playing favorites, but that’s not even the case here. They haven’t done anything else to help out the small teams like Whitney, are we really to believe they’re planning to start now? And even if that is the case, this is completely the wrong place and time to start. While McDowell qualified 15th on Saturday (in a legal car), three drivers who didn’t have blatant rule violations on their cars went home. Add to that that a less blatant template violation has led to drivers not being allowed to qualify, and you have to wonder why the No. 46 was even in Sunday’s race. And why, when all was said and done, the penalty didn’t equal the crime. Not even close. If NASCAR is wondering why its credibility is suffering with fans, situations like this one are a prime example.

NASCAR actually had a golden opportunity this weekend to do exactly what they had set precedent for (not allowing the No. 46 to make a qualifying run) and have even said would happen (bigger penalties going forward from Bowyer’s violation). Instead of using the opportunity to show fans that they can, in fact, enforce the rules fairy and consistently, they once again showed that they do not. In reality, NASCAR never has been described as fair or consistent, but given their current situation, a tenuous hold on the empire they once had within their grasp, this time they can’t afford to play the liar.

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