Race Weekend Central

Crime and Punishment 101: Why NASCAR Needs a Refresher

The 2012 NASCAR season is barely a week old and already the sanctioning body is throwing its weight around the garage, this time in the form of fines, suspensions, and points deductions for the No. 48 team, which was found to have an illegal C-post in the opening technical inspection. At first glance, this is NASCAR patrolling the garage, making sure that no team is breaking the rules, and making sure everyone knows that any infraction found in opening tech will be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner. That’s supposed to be a good thing, right? NASCAR is really cracking down on cheating, right?

Well, no. Because when you look closer at the situation, including similar situations in recent years, there are some glaring inconsistencies.

Let’s start with that first inspection. According to several sources, the No. 48 was singled out before the inspection for a closer look. Why? Perhaps it stemmed from the Talladega race last fall, when Chad Knaus, while looking directly at a television camera, told driver Jimmie Johnson to hit the rear end of the car on something if he won. Bear in mind that that car passed four separate inspections that weekend with no issues. NASCAR never had any reason to believe that Knaus’s comment was anything more than smoke and mirrors, a way to get inside the heads of the competition, something both he and Johnson excel at. So, why single out a car before it even hits the inspection line?

Well, then how about those C-posts? NASCAR has never said where they were out of tolerance, nor by how much. The final ruling was that the sanctioning body “didn’t like” how they looked. Really? If officials not liking how something looks was grounds for a penalty, several drivers would be out of a job.

Over the years and myriad of violations seen at the Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR has never proven able to standardize its penalization of race teams for violations that occur prior to taking the green flag.

In case you missed it, the No. 48 fit the template. That was never in question. And the car never even hit the track. Except, that is for the four times it raced in 2011, where it was inspected at least 16 times, including a complete teardown at NASCAR’s R&D center. According to team officials, the C-posts were never changed. If that’s true, then why are the posts suddenly illegal? There were no rules changes issued in the off-season regarding the C-post configuration. If the car really _was_ in violation of a rule and passed 16 inspections, perhaps NASCAR needs to invest in some new officials, or a better training program.

Because if they could miss a violation on one car _16 times_, what else are they missing?

Now for the sake of argument, let’s say that the No. 48 _did_ get a make-over in the off season. It was presented at preseason testing…if it looked _that_ wrong, wouldn’t someone from NASCAR have said something?

There are really two things at the heart of this matter: when the alleged infraction was found, and why the penalties for cars that never get on the racetrack are often heavier than cars that are found to be illegal after they have competed, and often won. This is not about the No. 48; it’s about every team that shows up, every week, and their fans.

Here’s the thing: teams don’t show up at the track attempting to race with a template violation. They show up with a car that they hope will satisfy the NASCAR inspectors. If NASCAR allows something through, it’s not cheating, because the people who make the rules didn’t find it illegal. But if it doesn’t satisfy the inspectors, that’s where the questions start. The answer isn’t always the same.

And that’s where NASCAR really fails its teams and fans. In other sports, the rules are clear, and everyone is given the same penalty for the same infraction; it’s simple and fair. Not so in NASCAR, even though it could and should be so.

In NASCAR, cars come to opening tech every weekend to see if they are legal. If they are legal, they are allowed to practice. If they are not, especially on a body violation, they are told to go back, fix it and try again. That’s different for parts, like windshields, that require prior approval by NASCAR-if something is supposed to be submitted for approval and isn’t, that team was already given one chance. But for parts like door posts, which do not require pre-approval, the only way to know if they’re legit is to go through the inspection line.

Lest you think that template violations don’t happen every weekend, that this is something rare and special, they do and it’s not. On any given weekend, cars that don’t meet NASCAR’s rigid standards are told to make a change or two and go to the end of the line. All they lose is practice time, a penalty in itself. It should be no different here; the No. 48 fit the template, and NASCAR had questions on the C-post. They should have told Knaus exactly what their issue was and made the team fix it, like they have with countless teams.

Heck, it was practically tradition at Daytona in years past for teams to show up with some off-season innovation to see if it was going to pass muster. If it did, good for them; if it didn’t, well, there were whole tables of confiscated parts put out in the garage for all to see what not to do. And no penalties beyond the humiliation. This situation is no different, and should not have been treated as such.

Not to mention, the other teams didn’t have an issue with Knaus’s C-posts. Most crew chiefs applauded him for working on an area they hadn’t thought of, one not touched by the template. Is there no room for innovation in NASCAR anymore? Does NASCAR, or its fan base, really want nothing more than IROC with the NASCAR label slapped on the fenders?

Teams need to be able to work somewhere. The common template and current engine and suspension packages allow little room for a smart mechanic to find his driver an advantage, and that too is a shame. Yes, it should be about the drivers, but it should also be about the team around him, and the ability to find that something more. The other teams would then find their own advantage, or be relegated to a season of beatdowns until they did. Parity comes from the common template, from the engine and geometry rules. Innovation comes from the rest of the car.

Not only was the No. 48 heavily punished for a part that NASCAR couldn’t even explain the illegality of, but a car went out the very next day and was found to be in violation of a clearly defined rule after their run…and next to nothing was done. When a corner of the No. 15 was too low after its qualifying run-potentially an aerodynamic advantage- the team had its time thrown out and had to start at the rear of its qualifying race, while still guaranteed a spot on Sunday. There were no fines, no points taken…from a car that _competed_ illegally.

There’s something seriously wrong there, even if one can say that Knaus is a repeat offender. Do you know which crew chiefs have the most penalties in the past five years that resulted in fines, suspensions, or both? How about which teams have had the most violations in that time span? You won’t find Knaus or the No. 48 on either list. Including this one, the team and crew chief have just one other infraction since 2007, for a five-year total of two.

Four crew chiefs also have a pair of infractions over that stretch. Three-Kevin Manion, Rodney Childers, and Frank Kerr-have more, with three apiece. The No. 7 team of Robby Gordon leads with four violations, while the No. 1 of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and the No. 18 of Joe Gibbs Racing have three each. (Driver-only penalties are not included here.) Bob Osborne and the No. 99 tie Knaus and the No. 48 with a pair, but both were post-race violations, while the No. 48’s both came in opening tech, before the car ever even practiced. The repeat offender card isn’t really on the table here, or shouldn’t be anyway.

What NASCAR needs to do is have a set penalty for infractions found at different stages of the weekend. An issue in opening tech should result in the team having to fix the issue and reinspect after every other car has gone through the line. A team should be able to show up with a monster truck with a jet engine and a rocket launcher and this should still be the penalty as long as it never competes. Perhaps also taking 30-60 minutes of practice time after the car passes would be a good attention-getter here. Take the offending part and put it on display for the rest of the world to see.

And that’s it.

Instead, some teams go back through, while others get fines (as the Joe Gibbs teams did last year after NASCAR found unapproved oil pans on all three JGR cars), and still others get point deductions and suspensions (as did the Michael Waltrip Raicng teams last year for unapproved windshields, largely the same infraction as the JGR teams had in terms of not getting prior approval). The process is ridiculously arbitrary and unfair. There should be no points deductions as no points are earned in practice.

If a car qualifies and is found illegal, it’s a no-brainer: if, after given time to cool, the car is not legal in any way that may have affected its performance, unless the team can prove that a part failure caused the infraction, the time should be tossed, and the team should miss the race, whether or not they are in the top 35. Right now, times are thrown out, but teams in the top 35 still start the race, while those outside go home, thereby receiving a much stiffer penalty for the same infraction. A stiff fine or even suspensions should come into play as well, but again, if points were not earned by the infraction, points should not be deducted.

Finally, if a car is found illegal after a race, if the infraction could have given any performance advantage, no matter how small, the finishing position, even a win, should be stripped, as well as all points and money earned in the event (but no more) by driver and owner, suspensions issued to crew chiefs. Basically, it should be as if that team was never in the race.

Unless NASCAR is planning to treat every team that fails opening tech for any reason in the same way as the No. 48 at Daytona, the penalty the team received was out of line with the infraction, if there even was one. There needs to be a better reason than “it didn’t look right,” and measurements to back that up. Really though, what NASCAR needs to do is treat the No. 48, and any other team that can’t make it through opening tech the same way as every other team that doesn’t, because that didn’t happen at Daytona.

Not only that, but it didn’t happen last year with the MWR and JGR teams, either. NASCAR, not the teams, was out of line in these punishments (and every other opening tech problem they gave penalties for). There needs to be a set of rules for the entire weekend, escalating in accordance with the amount of competition the car has participated in. It’s not about one team here. It’s about them all.

“Contact Amy Henderson”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14352/

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