Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: NASCAR Engine Aggravation Among Richmond Realizations

Welcome to “Mirror Driving.” Every Wednesday, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news, rumors, and controversy. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!

This Week’s Participants:

Amy Henderson (Mondays / The Big Six & Fridays / Holding A Pretty Wheel & Frontstretch Co-Managing Editor)
Phil Allaway (Tuesdays / Talking NASCAR TV & Frontstretch Newsletter Editor)
Kevin Rutherford, Assistant Editor
Ellen Richardson, Newsletter Contributor

After the No. 20 engine failed postrace teardown, NASCAR slapped the team, which won the race in Kansas, with a 50-point penalty along with a six-week suspension and fine for crew chief Jason Ratcliffe. Did NASCAR make the right call?

Phil: Knowing what we know now, I think it seems incredibly draconian.  However, they’ve definitely sent a message.  Don’t cross us.
Amy: Given that it was an engine and NASCAR has never taken engine infractions lightly, I think it’s close to being right. I think they should have taken only points earned in that race, though.
Kevin: It’s an engine violation, so I knew the punishment was gonna be harsh. But wow! Some of the details in this are pretty crazy. The most interesting aspect of it to me is the part about Gibbs actually losing the owner’s license for the car for six races. So he’s not going to be able to get championship car owner points in that period.
Amy: And, as always, I believe they should strip the win. The whole “fans won’t get it” excuse for not doing so is just lame.
Ellen: If this was a team issue, I believe the penalties were sufficient. But this was a Toyota engine issue, which they have claimed responsibility for.
Phil: I sure hope TRD’s going to pay that $200,000.
Ellen: Right. They shouldn’t be penalizing Matt Kenseth or anyone on his team when TRD built the engine.
Phil:That license stripping is a new one.  Don’t know if I like it.
Ellen: Why is Joe Gibbs being punished when he is more of a figurehead for that team than anything else?
Kevin: I get it from the standpoint that JGR bought the engine (and this applies to any other part)… they kind of assume responsibility for it once it’s theirs.
Amy: Yeah, that part of it does seem excessive.  If the car is legal next week, owner points should stand. But Kenseth won in an illegal car, regardless of whose fault it is.  How do you rectify that with the guys who did drive legal cars on Sunday.  Did they take the No. 5 engine, too?  If it was legal, telling Kahne “well it was Toyota, not the team” seems pretty weak.
Ellen: If the team receives engines from TRD, are they supposed to weigh every part of the engine? That is insane!!
Kevin: Probably will have to now. Better safe than sorry, unless TRD starts looking more closely at their stuff to make sure it’s going to be legal before heading out to the team.
Amy: You can’t allow passing the buck in these circumstances, though.  The team is ultimately responsible.  Otherwise, it could get ridiculous.
Phil: According to Bob Pockrass’ Twitter, they did take Kahne’s engine.
Amy: Then it passed, obviously, or there would have been a penalty.  And say what you want about Hendrick, I don’t remember them having engine penalties.
Phil: Not anytime recently.
Amy: So there’s no reason to think it was illegal, anyway.  I do have to laugh at the fans who apparently think only Hendrick pushes the limits.  Talk about having your head in the sand.
Ellen: I actually was talking to my boyfriend about this earlier today and he said that this rod wouldn’t have given this team any kind of advantage. I am actually curious as to why this one rod was weighed, anyway?
Phil: I’m assuming they weighed them all.
Amy: I still think for a major postrace infraction, the penalty should be stripping of the finish and loss of any points earned, plus whatever the crew chief gets.  So from that standpoint, I think NASCAR missed it. When they take an engine back to R&D it is torn down and every piece and part inspected.
Phil: What’s a minor post-race infraction, then?  Is there such a thing?
Amy: Car too low, that kind of thing. Truex last week was minor
Ellen: I understand on inspecting every part of car and engine and I still am wondering if this was just a simple fluke where someone at TRD made a simple mistake.
Amy: One light rod might not give an advantage, but would 8?  Perhaps it was someone trying to see if NASCAR would notice… I don’t think that’s the case, just throwing it out there.
Phil: They made it sound like an overseas vendor screwed up.
Kevin: I think with the severity of the penalties as a whole, it’s almost akin to taking the win away completely. But yeah, I do kind of wonder if they’ll start actually erasing the win from one’s records eventually. Almost surprised they didn’t.
Amy: Mistake or not, the engine Kenseth won with was illegal.
Ellen: I agree on removing the win and taking away points for the win.  Punishing Joe Gibbs is too excessive though!
Amy: Yeah, I have an issue with no owner points for 6 weeks… if they earn points, it’s a legal car. They should get them.
Ellen: I feel like TRD should receive more of a slap on the wrist than was provided since they have claimed responsibility.
Amy: How can NASCAR punish TRD?  They’re an outside contractor. They contract with the team, not NASCAR. I suppose JGR could tell them to shove off, but that’s about it.
Kevin: That’s the main aspect I’m grappling with. That’s a harsh penalty for the team as a whole for sure. I’m sure this sort of thing isn’t going to happen again with them. They’ll take every care imaginable to make sure of it.

*Stewart-Haas Racing is behind where they were as a team just a year ago. Was adding a third team the wrong decision, or are there other things at play here?*

Amy: There are definitely other factors.  Can’t pin this on on Danica.
Kevin: Yeah, I don’t really think it’s the third car that’s really messing them up. Maybe to a small extent, but more growing pains than anything. It’s Stewart that really seems most affected.
Ellen: Definitely a PR move. I don’t think they expected Danica to be a top-10 finisher this year by any means.
Amy:  I wonder if it has to do with Steve Addington more than anyone.  Danica is running where you’d expect, so can’t say she’s underperforming and Newman is picking it up. It’s the 14 that’s drastically underperforming.
Phil: Danica probably has taken some attention away from the other two cars.  However, Stewart has just had no luck.  Wrecking and really random stuff has consistently kept him outside the top-10.
Amy: It’s not just that, though. Even when he hasn’t had bad luck, Stewart’s out to lunch. I think firing Darian Grubb could be biting him now.
Ellen: I agree on Darian Grubb not being with the team.  I bet Stewart is kicking himself now! Tony Stewart’s performance is more of a surprise to me this season than anything else. Wondering if it is time to look into new crew members? As much as it pains me, Danica is the reason that they are receiving coverage as much as they are lately.
Kevin: Ryan Newman is at least getting some top-10 finishes (free Bloomin’ Onions!) here and there. Stewart has only one, same as Danica. Didn’t see that coming.
Amy: Newman has definitely picked it up. And he has to; he is fighting to keep a ride or to find a new one.
Phil: Newman has been doing OK, but he’s had bad luck as well.
Ellen: I’m actually thinking Newman might get his first win in a long time this season.
Amy: I also do wonder if for Stewart, the everyday distractions of running a three-car team with a rookie is affecting him as a driver.
Kevin: That could be. Added responsibilities.
Amy: I don’t think the 10 takes away performance wise, but it is a distraction if you’re the owner.
Phil: I can buy that, Amy.  He’s got a lot on his plate. 
Kevin: If that’s the case, it could be that we’ll see Tony start running better once Danica’s a little more settled in with her role.
Amy: One other thing to toss out there is that Stewart is in his 40s and not as fit as many of his peers…
Phil: Yeah, Stewart’s not in the best shape.  However, I just don’t think that’s the primary reason he’s not running well.
Amy: Remember, he’s got to work on funding for a fourth team or transition the 39 to Kevin Harvick… that’s even more on the plate.
Ellen: I am not sure it is Tony’s age either. Otherwise, the rest of the team would be doing better.  With this team being a Hendrick satellite I would think they would be performing better. I believe the Hendrick factor is why Kevin would even have interest in joining in 2014.
Phil: You can still do plenty in Sprint Cup at 42.  That constant work behind the scenes in getting sponsors for Harvick in 2014, and well… everyone else for this season has to be clawing at Stewart.
Amy: I think it’s a lot of things, really.  You can’t pinpoint a single reason.  If we could, they’d be able to fix it!
Ellen: Stewart might need to consider stepping back to only team owner next year and let Kevin take over his ride.
Amy: I don’t see that happening.
Ellen: Probably not, but just throwing it out there!
Kevin: I’m interested to see where this team is in about 10 races, when we’re halfway through the season. Will Tony still be struggling? If he is, that’s when I’ll really start wondering what’s up with this team. Right now it’s strange, but they have time to turn things around.
Ellen: Agreed. Tony will probably turn it on around July, as normal.
Phil: I agree.  We’re still only 8 races into a 36-race season.  Danica’s about where everyone thought she’d be, and Newman’s maybe a little behind schedule.  It’s not completely dire.

*Richmond has been described by some as the perfect race track.  Is it?*

Amy: Almost.  I like that it’s a multi-groove short track.  However, I think Martinsville is the perfect track over anything else.  Richmond is in the top tier, though.
Phil: I don’t know.  I will say, Richmond is quite the track for racing.  You could argue that the competition has suffered a little since the repave.
Amy: I do think that anyone building a racetrack should be using Richmond for a model.
Kevin: I’ve never really thought of it in that capacity, but I can certainly say that I’ve enjoyed just about every race I’ve watched there.
Ellen: I have always loved Richmond but I wouldn’t call it the perfect track! Part of what I love about it is the easier fan access than most tracks. The access is much better than most tracks, especially when you think of something like Charlotte.
Amy: If it had the rough surface of a Rockingham or old Darlington, it would be pretty close to perfect. If the tires really wore out, those grooves would change and strategy would be more in play… that would be awesome. Incidentally, on that token, I was blown away by the fan access in NHRA… absolutely amazing.
Ellen: Fan access for NHRA has always blown NASCAR out of the water! I was disappointed that many of the NHRA drivers were acting just like NASCAR drivers, hanging out in their haulers.
Amy: Really, Ellen?  I saw all of them out there most of the time. I don’t think there was anyone I didn’t see out signing at some point.
Ellen: I went on Sunday and was trying to interview drivers, before I worked here… except I had the hardest time getting anyone to come out!
Amy: NASCAR is too big to do what they do, but it was so cool to see the drivers out talking to the fans and enjoying it. 
Phil: Fan access in the NHRA appears to be slightly greater than Grand-Am.  Then again, I did see a dude get run over by a golf cart during the Rolex 24 in January. The thing is, when you’re not doing a run in the NHRA, drivers really don’t do much.  Therefore, they have the time to talk with fans and sign autographs.
Amy: Anyway, Richmond… I do love it.  It’s a great track.
Ellen: I do too. One of the few tracks that I still love.  Nothing compares to good ol ‘Rockingham though!!
Amy: And I think it should be the model for future tracks.  I like the uniqueness of Bristol and Martinsville too much to say they should be, even though I like Martinsville better than Richmond. I do love Rockingham. The surface is so bumpy, even in a car with a street suspension.
Kevin: I definitely wouldn’t hate it if we had more tracks in the vein of Richmond on the schedule.
Ellen: I like Martinsville in terms of the racing.  Fan access in Martinsville is a pain though.
Amy: I can’t imagine what that’s like in race trim. There’s not enough room.  As it is, the garage is scary crowded on race day.
Kevin: I’m a sucker for night races too, so Richmond does a lot for me in that regard.
Ellen: We do need more tracks like Richmond. I would like to see more short track racing than anything though.
Amy: In general, there needs to be more driver access outside the garage at races, but fewer people in the garage.
Ellen: I actually enjoy the night racing in Richmond more than Bristol, now anyway. I agree on driver access!
Amy: I prefer Richmond to Bristol as well.
Phil: Maybe fan access wise, yes.  However, if there’s another sweet short track built, it should be of a unique variety instead of a rip-off.  Memphis Motorsports Park’s oval was designed to be a quasi-Richmond clone.
Amy: Really, I think that the important thing about a track is the racing, not access.
Ellen: We need a short track that requires more bumping and running. I don’t go to tracks that I know the competition will be boring unless I absolutely have to!
Amy: NASCAR needs more short tracks, period, in all series.  Nationwide and CWTS shouldn’t race on tracks over a mile more than three or four times a year.
Phil: True, racing is more important.  Richmond puts on a decent show.  Saturday night’s race should be quite enjoyable to watch.
Kevin Rutherford : I love Richmond a lot, so I’m definitely excited for this weekend! Is it perfection? Well, I can think of few tracks that are better.

*NASCAR docked the No. 98 team of Johnny Sauter 25 points and suspended crew chief Joe Shear for four weeks after finding an illegal fuel cell in the truck in opening inspection.  Was this penalty too harsh compared to other recent infractions in the Truck and Nationwide Series?*

Amy: It’s awfully hard to say without knowing what the infraction was…
Phil: I can’t think of an equivalent penalty in the Truck Series. It appears that the foam in the fuel cell was altered. Since fuel cells are certified by NASCAR; you can’t mess with it once they’re certified.
Amy: However, since it was found before the truck ever even rolled on track, I say the team should have been made to fix it and their punishment been loss of practice time only.
Ellen: I actually believe this penalty could have been more stiff like that of what was given to JGR today.
Amy: I still have an issue with things found in opening tech… they never gave any advantage because they were never on track.  That’s totally different than if it was found after qualifying or after a race.
Ellen: If they were allowed to fix this issue, then why was Penske given such a hefty penalty prior to racing?
Amy: You can argue intent, but the fact is, the team raced a legal truck. Penske’s was found after qualifying.
Ellen: I know, but before racing. Not long before, but before.
Phil: The foam in the fuel cells is there for a reason.  In addition to it being a competition standard, it’s a safety precaution.  Stripping foam out of the cell to expand fuel capacity could increase fire risk in the event of a crash.
Amy: IMO, their times should have been thrown out and no provisional given.
Ellen: The rules are, if you come to track with something illegal you will be penalized. These teams are well aware of this rule!
Amy: Sure they are, but I still think there need to be degrees of penalty depending on when it was found. I don’t think they should take points that were never earned with an illegal car. On the other hand, if it’s illegal after the race, they shouldn’t keep the finish.
Phil: In other words, just fine the bejesus out of them.
Ellen: My chief complaint is that NASCAR needs to be more clear on penalties and use the same across the board.
Kevin: That would be nice.
Amy: Again, Phil, depends.  If it’s a postrace, throw out the finish and points. If it’s post-qualifying, toss the time and no provisional… that naturally takes care of a point fine.
Ellen: If it is prerace, don’t let them race!
Amy: If it’s before the car gets on track, make them fix it and take away their practive time and give a fat fine.
Ellen: Im not so sure that many of these drivers should be receiving fines the way that the actual team does because I have found that many drivers don’t even know how their cars are put together. I wish that they were more involved in this part of the process though. Now, if this was on a local level where most drivers are building their cars, engines, suspension, etc, fines should be implicated.
Amy: But if they’re that clueless that their team is cheating up the car without them knowing, their fault for not being more involved. A fuel cell modification is pretty blatant.  This isn’t a couple of grams on an engine part that the driver would never see…
Ellen: You would be surprised how often some of these drivers are unaware as to what is going on, especially the higher up you go.  Not always the case but seems to happen a lot in NASCAR.
Amy: Do I think the drivers generally know?  No, but perhaps they should…
Ellen: Agreed.
Kevin: Yeah, continued issues might provide incentive to learn more themselves, rather than just trusting in their team, if they’re not well-versed in how these cars work.
Amy: Heck, I think there are times the crew chief doesn’t know, but he is ultimately responsible for his team.
Phil: ThorSport is a rather far flung team as compared to… everyone else in the series.  Sandusky is quite a ways from Charlotte.  Kinda hard to show up at the shop on a regular basis.
Ellen: Well, I don’t have a problem with the penalty other than you penalize one team this way you do the same across the board.
Amy: I think the penalty was harsh given Sauter never even practiced the truck, let alone gained an advantage in qualifying or a race
Phil: There are also times in which the crew chief is completely responsible for the stuff that goes down.  David Hyder was fired for whatever the deuce he put in Michael Waltrip’s engine prior to Daytona 500 Qualifying in 2007 (possibly jet fuel).
Amy: Crew chiefs are penalized for fights between crews as well.
Phil: Yes, they are, because they’re responsible for controlling their guys and gals. It’s the equal of the NBA’s leaving the bench rule, instituted in 1994 to prevent bench clearing brawls.

Predictions for Richmond?

Amy: I know Kyle Busch is the obvious choice, but the law of averages says five in a row is highly unlikely.
Kevin: I’ll go with Jimmie Johnson.
Ellen: Sorry to interrupt and this is totally off topic, but did anyone notice Denny’s recent tweet?
Phil: About not racing this weekend?  Yes.  I’ve already put in Top News for the Newsletter.
Amy: Yeah.  We actually discussed that in here a few weeks back, that’s why it’s off the docket for tonight
Phil: Kevin Harvick for me.
Ellen: Great! I knew this topic wouldn’t be on docket. Just wanted to make everyone aware of recent news.  I’m hoping for Bowyer.  Hoping for Larson win in the Short Track Showdown.

Connect with Amy!

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Connect with Kevin!

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About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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