Race Weekend Central

Transparency Is Essential For NASCAR–So Why Don’t They Have It?

Two series, three violations among four teams, seven suspensions, 81 driver and owner points, and $250,000 in fines. Those are the results after NASCAR penalty day this week after the sanctioning body saw the violations at Texas and Rockingham.

Sprint Cup driver Martin Truex, Jr.‘s No. 56 Toyota was found to be too low in post-race inspection, and though Truex’s second-place finish will stand, Truex was docked six points and his crew chief fined. Also in the Cup garage, NASCAR confiscated the rear-end housings from the Nos. 2 and 22 cars of defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Because of new rules pertaining directly to those parts, plus a perceived intent to gain an illegal advantage, Keselowski and Logano lost 25 points apiece, and their crew chiefs, Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon were suspended for six points races and the All-Star event, along with both car chiefs, team engineers, and Penske Racing Competition Director Travis Geisler.

Meanwhile, at Rockingham, four-time champion Ron Hornaday, Jr., angry with the way rookie driver Darrell Wallace, Jr. raced him, deliberately turned Wallace under caution, destroying Wallace’s truck and ending his day early. At the time, NASCAR moved Hornaday to the end of the longest line for the restart, and later docked him 25 points and fined him $25,000.

The Nos. 2 and 22 were found to be in violation of NASCAR rules and were penalized, but the exact reasons were unclear and fans are confused.

But here’s where it gets confusing at just about every turn. The penalty for Truex’s team was expected and clear cut. Too low means too low. NASCAR already has a built-in tolerance for wear and tear, and the No. 56 exceeded it. The six-point penalty is also pretty standard for recent similar violations. Because the team chose not to appeal, it most likely means they can’t prove a part failure (similar penalties have been overturned on appeal when the team could prove something broke). In other words, NASCAR was consistent in their ruling based on others, and there was transparency; everyone from teams in the garage to fans at home can understand exactly what the violation was and, going forward, can be reasonably confident that NASCAR is going to treat similar incidents in a similar way.

That transparency is exactly what NASCAR needs. Unfortunately, it’s also exactly what didn’t happen with the other penalties issued.

The Penske situation is awfully convoluted, and it never had to be. Starting from the beginning, there are clear rules on the areas that NASCAR said the Nos. 2 and 22 went astray. According to NASCAR rules, “all suspension systems and components must be approved by NASCAR. Prior to being used in competition, all suspension systems and components must be submitted, in a completed form/assembly, to the office of the NASCAR Competition Administrator for consideration of approval and approved by NASCAR. Each such part may thereafter be used until NASCAR determines that such part is no longer eligible. All suspension fasteners and mounting hardware must be made of solid magnetic steel. All front end and rear end suspension mounts with mounting hardware assembled must have single round mounting holes that are the correct size for the fastener being used. All front end and rear end suspension mounts and mounting hardware must not allow movement or realignment of any suspension component beyond normal rotation or suspension travel.”

That’s a mouthful, but it’s also pretty clear. What’s not clear is the nature of the violation itself. NASCAR originally said that the Penske teams had violated “the spirit of the rule,” which is to keep teams from being able to skew the rear ends of the race cars, in turn making them handle better. OK, that’s fair enough—the fans and manufacturers were vocal that they didn’t like the “crab-walking” look that the fourth-generation cars and even the CoT sported.

But “violated the spirit of the rule?” Really? Doesn’t that translate roughly into, “it doesn’t technically break one of these rules, but it has the same end result on the car?”

Sure. Maybe. On one hand, this sure looks a lot like a penalty that NASCAR issued to the No. 48 team last year, based on nothing more than a visual inspection and an official who thought that something “didn’t look right.” That penalty was drastically reduced on appeal, most likely because of the lackadaisical way NASCAR handled it; the car was never put on the templates, and they had previously approved the car. If this past history is the case now, shouldn’t NASCAR have learned that a part not looking right isn’t going to fly if there is no basis of comparison to what’s legal? But, if this incident is something similar, why not say exactly what looked wrong? Not doing so hurt NASCAR’s credibility, in the case of the No. 48, and it hurt that same credibility now. If the piece was technically legal but something NASCAR didn’t want the team to use, then they should have made them change it, created a specific rule against it, and been done with it. That’s happened in the past and everyone moved on; no harm, no foul.

On the other hand, if the piece was legal and Penske Racing simply didn’t submit it for approval according to the rules… well, shame on them. A similar situation happened in 2011, with Joe Gibbs Racing, when that organization had some unapproved oil pans on their cars, which NASCAR confiscated. Those parts also require prior approval, and because the team failed to get it, they took a hit. The resulting penalty, however, was a $50,000 fine and probation for the rest of the year for the crew chiefs, probation for the car chiefs and Senior VP of Racing Operations at JGR. Again, the oil pans were not illegal; they were unapproved. That’s still a rule violation, though, and a penalty was warranted. But if this week’s case was a simple failure to have a part approved, why not penalize in accordance with prior occurrences of the same situation instead of coming down on the team as if they had blatantly cheated?

The third possibility is that NASCAR did, in fact, find a blatant cheat on the cars. After all, there isn’t a written rule against every single thing a team could do to trick out a car; that would be impossible. For example, there wasn’t a specific rule regarding an infraction on the No. 48 at Daytona in 2006, when the team modified the rear suspension adjustment points to raise or lower the rear window, nor was there one specifically prohibiting the exact mechanism that crew chief Todd Berrier had on the No. 29 in 2005 that made the fuel cell appear full when it wasn’t. There is no way NASCAR could have anticipated those exact violations, but that didn’t mean they were legal or in the “spirit of the rules.” And there are catch-all rules that cover parts that NASCAR doesn’t deem legal that aren’t written in as technically illegal. NASCAR came down very, very hard in both those cases, as they should have.

So, then, what’s the problem here? Well, for some reason, NASCAR hasn’t said exactly what the issue found on the Nos. 2 and 22 is. And that’s the truly troubling part here. If the rear-end housings were tricked out enough, like the previous violations on the Nos. 29 and 48, why not just come out and say what the team did? I doubt anyone would have a problem with NASCAR’s position if there was, in fact, a blatant attempt at cheating. The problem is, we don’t know. It’s likely that there was something along those lines, but why not disclose it?

If there was more transparency here, it could well be that NASCAR is being completely consistent. But without it, people will never be sure, and it’s the nature of fans to question NASCAR’s motives because, frankly, their lack of forthrightness gives them a reason to. That’s why there’s so much debate over this incident and the similar one last year: fans have to choose sides, and they don’t have the information needed to do so in an informed manner.

In the situation at Texas, all that needed to be done was for NASCAR to outline exactly what they found on those rear-end housings. Had they done so, the penalties might not be so perplexing. After all, no fan wants teams cheating, and if that was the case, NASCAR was within their rights to penalize, though one could argue that the penalties were still pretty stiff for a car that never raced with an illegal part. And if those parts were not technically illegal, NASCAR should have told the team never to run them again and promptly made a rule to be sure they would not. Then, they could have moved on. Sure, there would have been a few naysayers—there always are. But at least everyone would know exactly what went down.

Finally, there was the Hornaday incident. This one is, in some ways, even more convoluted than the Penske issues. While NASCAR was inconsistent on Sunday, the lack of clarity was apparently over a year ago, when they parked Kyle Busch for wrecking (ironically) Hornaday under caution at Texas in 2011. At that time, after a remarkably similar incident, Busch was parked not only for that event, but for the remainder of the weekend, including the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races.

Given Busch’s punishment, which NASCAR said at the time was due to the gravity of the incident and not his repeated run-ins with other drivers or his being a regular in another series and seriously impacting the CWTS championship race, fans rightfully expected Hornaday to be sitting out Kansas.

Except he’s not.

NASCAR didn’t park Hornaday at Rockingham (they sent him to the end of the longest line) and they didn’t park him for Kansas, instead docking 25 points and fining him 25 grand. Given that Hornaday can still earn some points this week, that’s not as severe a penalty as Busch got. Yes, you can make the argument that NASCAR couldn’t dock Busch CWTS points because he was ineligible to earn any, but they did, in essence, dock him an entire race worth of points in Sprint Cup, his primary series. The argument about the championship doesn’t hold a lot of water, either. The Truck Series doesn’t have a points reset, so every point is valuable, and Wallace took a hit in both the title and Rookie of the Year hunts.

But NASCAR said in 2011 that Busch’s penalty wasn’t due to his being a repeat offender, and perhaps that’s where they weren’t telling the truth. Had the official line been that they had simply had enough of Busch’s repeated on-track run-ins, which he’s had just about every year in one series or another, fans might have accepted the lighter penalty for Hornaday. Or, if NASCAR’s stance then had been that Busch was not a series regular and Hornaday was, that also might have helped fans understand the difference in punishments. Instead, there’s a pervading sense of unfairness at play.

Now, everyone is left to speculate why NASCAR didn’t follow their own precedent. And what the sanctioning body has is a bunch of divided, angry fans instead of a fan base that can understand and support the call. The easy (and correct) thing to do would have been to park Hornaday for the remainder of last week’s race and all of this week’s. Everyone, except Hornaday, then goes home more or less happy, or if they’re Hornaday fans, they’re still pissed off, but they get why it was done.

The problem NASCAR had this week wasn’t so much with the penalties they issued, which, especially in the case of the Penske teams, may well have been warranted. Instead, they hid behind catch phrases and sidestepping, dividing the fan base and making everyone wonder what’s going to happen next, whether they’re playing favorites, who’s a scapegoat and what’s legit. The fix for it is so simple, though: make the rule book available, if not directly to fans, at least to the media covering the sport who are charged with explaining NASCAR’s actions to the masses. Then, disclose the exact nature of infractions and the subsequent penalties.

In other words, NASCAR needs transparency. They need it in order to have consistency, because with transparency, consistency isn’t even a question. If everyone knows what the rules are, how teams will be penalized when they’re broken, then they may not like the consequences, but at least they’d know they were fair. If everyone knows exactly what the infraction was, they will understand why a penalty was harsh, or why it was lenient. Fans want to know that the sport treats violations fairly and consistently. And for that to happen, there must first be clarity.

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