For years the complaints have rained down on the suits in NASCAR that probation after a rules violation has the teeth of a 90 year-old man with no dentures. Chew chiefs, drivers, and crewmen are always placed on probation after a violation is announced, but it never means anything. At first glance, it _appears_ to mean something, but only if the sanctioning body has been put in a very visible position where they have to make a statement or risk that the “casual fan” will find out what probation really means most of the time.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of people placed on probation by NASCAR in the history of the sport, but the number of people actually suspended for violations while on probation can be counted on one hand. Early in his career, Kevin Harvick was on probation when he drove like a total ass in a Truck Series race at Martinsville. He was subsequently suspended for a race in order to spend a little time realigning his driving priorities. This year Kurt Busch was on probation for his actions on pit road at Darlington when he was caught on camera having a less-than-flattering discussion with Bob Pockrass. NASCAR took Busch out of the seat for the Pocono race. Finally, Todd Berrier was on probation a few years ago when he was the crew chief for Kevin Harvick when he was caught with some illegal items on his car and he was put on the bench for some races. There may be a couple of other instances but that is about it as far as I can recall. There have been many people on NASCAR probation but there have been very few actually suspended, even if they incurred an infraction while on the watch list.
This historical perspective has been laid out to give some framework to the events that took place at Kentucky Speedway this weekend. Austin Dillon scored his first career Nationwide victory, however when the car rolled through post race inspection the rear end was not high enough to be considered legal. As a result, Dillon was penalized but allowed to keep his win (as is standard procedure) while crew chief, Danny Stockman, Jr. was fined $10,000. In and of itself this would seem like a pretty standard penalty for such a violation, however it was not the first offense for Stockman this year. During initial inspection at Richmond in April, the front bumper cover on Dillon’s car–along with the rest of the RCR and Turner Motorsports cars–was deemed illegal and had to be cut off. As a result, Stockman was fined $10,000 and placed on probation until December, 31st. Therefore, this was Stockman’s second violation and occurred while he was on probation. The difference between Stockman and Busch or Harvick is that his misdeed was not viewed on national television or Youtube by millions of people. The potential for embarrassment to the sanctioning body was far smaller than it was with the drivers.
Kevin Harvick was just bursting onto the NASCAR scene in 2002 when he wrecked Coy Gibbs in a Truck race at Martinsville. NASCAR had already told Harvick that he needed to settle down his driving and he apparently did not take them seriously. Harvick’s actions unfolded before a television audience, so NASCAR’s hand was forced. Had they not acted they would have had a very visible credibility issue. The same thing is true for Kurt Busch. Busch was on probation for the events at the end of the Darlington Cup race and then had that interview with Pockrass that went south and was subsequently viewed by millions of people. Again, NASCAR had no choice but to do something public or they would have looked foolish.
For Stockman, the unacceptable behavior was behind closed doors, or at least away from the camera’s view. Had Stockman come out in his post race interview and said that he was glad that he was able to get the spoiler out of the air by making the rear of the car too low, it would have been a very different story. Since the publicity involved for NASCAR is all by word of mouth, they can simply fine Stockman again and go on their merry way. If he continues to have run ins with the officials then things may change but for now, he’s just another $10,000 light in the wallet but atop the pit box where Dillon needs him most. When Berrier was suspended, he had routinely pushed the technical inspection process, and done some things that were clearly designed to circumvent the spirit of the rules. Stockman’s actions aren’t quite to that level yet, and the newest violation was in a different area of the car, and that, apparently, is why he was fined and continues to be on probation.
Unfortunately, this continues to be a credibility issue for NASCAR, and has been for years. The difference from being on probation in NASCAR and not being on probation is hardly discernable. Provided you do not do anything that is caught on Youtube or national television, you’re most likely not going to spend any time in the penalty box. The sanctioning body needs to either step up and put some teeth behind probation, or stop the farce and simply not use it as a go-to option for penalties anymore.
NASCAR does a great job of making the playing field as level as they possibly can and some would even say it is too level. Keeping people inside the ever shrinking rule box can result in violations that are not intentional at all, but the bottom line is, they are still violations. If rule violations do not result in stiffer penalties when people are on probation, then there is no reason for probation to exist. At the local short track level, a violation is a violation, and wins are routinely stripped for violations. While NASCAR won’t take a win away, or at least hasn’t taken a win from a driver who was the first to take the checkered flag since the 50s with Fireball Roberts at Daytona, they should at least enforce the rules and make them even more thoroughly enforced when someone is currently on probation. For now, unless you violate a rule in front of a million viewers, you’re just going to have to write another check.
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