Did You Notice? Any specific reasons why Jimmie Johnson’s team failed pre-qualifying inspection at Charlotte? No, I don’t have them either. That’s ultimately the reason why a NASCAR appeals panel Tuesday threw out the most hotly debated P1 penalty since the sport developed a new system.
It’s also left many fans in a state of confusion, exactly what NASCAR didn’t want when it created the whole P1-P6 concept. The last few years, to their credit they’ve moved more toward black-and-white decisions, going out of their way to finally open up the rulebook and explain why teams receive the penalties they get. Are you found too low during post-race inspection? NASCAR explains just how much, associates that with a specific consequence (P3) and a consistent loss of driver and owner points. For years, all corners of the sport pleaded for this type of “open book” and now we’re finally moving toward it.
But the Johnson issue is a giant step backward. The problem with the penalty and subsequent appeal is we don’t know why or what is happening. That’s true on both the front and back ends of the system. When the initial P1 was issued, it was for written warnings in back-to-back weeks for the No. 48 team: pulling out the side skirt illegally during the All-Star Race and then failing pre-qualifying inspection a week later. The first portion is a clear-cut case, widely reported and seen on video. The second? No one was around, even other teams we’re simply relying on NASCAR’s word Johnson failed inspection. What, exactly was wrong with the car? Why did it fail? These are questions answered easily in, say football when there’s a holding penalty or pass interference. NASCAR needs to be able to specifically answer them, just as quickly when the written warning is issued for the good of the sport. It’s like saying someone is guilty of murder but not providing any evidence.
It seems that lack of transparency transferred over to the “courtroom.” In rescinding the penalty, this three-member panel claimed there was a “preponderance of evidence” the No. 48 failed pre-qualifying inspection. That allowed the team to get off scot free, an added bonus after they’d already used the appeals process to their advantage – delaying their penalty until after the Dover race weekend. Picking the last pit stall there, their penance would have likely cost Johnson any shot at earning his 10th Dover victory.
Now? Johnson comes off with nothing, and the Appeals Panel in their decision is allowed to say nothing more than a “preponderance of the evidence.” There were no details; no interviews given that would provide us a more specific explanation as to why their decision was made. Once again, the sport is thrown into a gray area, the murky waters through which fans change the channel and other teams throw their arms up and go, “Where’s the consistency?”
So here’s a thought. When a team fails inspection, to the point they’re issued a written warning NASCAR needs to provide a few more sentences as to why. And how about videotaping the failures? Cameras are so readily available these days we can shoot a movie-length feature on our smartphone. Leaving all inspection open, even though about five people would want to watch on a weekly basis leaves no room for interpretation when a team like the No. 48 fails. You can go back, look at the videotape, see the inspector point out what part’s illegal and know exactly where all sides are coming from.
It’s a necessity for NASCAR in these days where privacy is but an optical illusion. Especially with Johnson, who’s paired with a crew chief in Chad Knaus that’s had no problem pushing the envelope getting the fan base to believe in their decisions against them is a must. The sport has come a long way in this regard but Tuesday’s appeal reminds us they haven’t gone far enough.
Did You Notice? Clint Bowyer hasn’t won a race since Spingate? That leaves me skeptical as to whether Tuesday’s crew chief swap does anything to boost either him or teammate David Ragan, both of whose fortunes are anchored to the slowly sinking ship of Michael Waltrip Racing.
I don’t blame MWR for making a move considering their current position. Both cars sit without a top-five finish, Bowyer is 20 points outside the Chase and Ragan has no chance unless the No. 55 can somehow win a race. But it’s clear, over one season after his departure, that head wrench Rodney Childers did more for that MWR program than any other mechanic they have. Billy Scott, a former engineer, has done little to inspire confidence, remaining winless with just three career top-five performances. Making his life difficult has been a merry-go-round of drivers, rendering it hard to establish chemistry after blood clots once again derailed Brian Vickers’s career.
Pairing Scott with Bowyer, whose relationship with Pattie seems better than most in the NASCAR garage feels like a bit of a downgrade. It’s also coming just one week after Bowyer had a promising ninth-place effort at Dover. Yes, they’ve led just two laps all season, but were they finally on the road to recovery? Both went through a public relations nightmare, and the resulting loss of respect (and cash) caused a seismic disruption that takes years of off-track therapy and on-track recovery to boot.
The difference in performance following NASCAR’s “crime of the playoffs” has been stunning. Here’s Bowyer’s MWR tenure with that Richmond race as the defining line:
2012-Richmond 2013: 62 starts, 3 wins, 18 top fives, 36 top 10s, 673 laps led
Richmond 2013-Now: 60 starts, 0 wins, 7 top fives, 24 top 10s, 180 laps led
That comparison says it all. It’s not just Bowyer’s psyche that took a hit; the economics of MWR have also never been the same. Forced to contract from three teams to two, they’ve struggled to sell primary sponsor inventory on Bowyer’s car while getting the type of financial and information boost from Toyota they need to be competitive. The manufacturer’s Sprint Cup program, with just 10 full-time cars in the fold, has struggled as it is to expand their reach beyond Joe Gibbs Racing. While information is trickling down, the lines of communication more open in 2015 sheer weakness in numbers makes it difficult to build an alliance. BK Racing, whose owner Ron Devine has been accused of not paying crewmen or drivers, just doesn’t have the money to be competitive. That leaves MWR as the only middle-tier option and for JGR, behind on raw speed themselves. That makes dragging up MWR’s two-car program seem like a Herculean assignment.
Meanwhile, Ragan gets paired with Brian Pattie, a head wrench who’s worked with a wide variety of personalities. However, outside of his success with Bowyer, the crew chief has just one other victory, a road course triumph at Watkins Glen with Juan Pablo Montoya. A driver who’s still a question mark in terms of overall talent, Ragan struggled this season filling in for Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Toyota. Young Erik Jones, who started one race at Kansas, was instantly in position for a better finish than Ragan ever had in the car – and he was making his Sprint Cup debut. So it’s a journeyman driver Pattie has inherited, making it difficult to see a spark here that will lift this duo toward the victory needed for Chase participation.
Will MWR survive? Certainly. But their best hope moving forward is to find more sponsorship dollars, bringing back a third car or signing a dynamic driver for 2016. As I pointed out yesterday, Danica Patrick wouldn’t be a bad fit for them down the line, but there’s no guarantee she’ll even be available. In the meantime, crew chief swapping is the best they can do – just don’t expect a world of difference. Bowyer still has a chance to make the Chase but if he does, it won’t be through Victory Lane.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off…
- Every week, we have Numbers Game in the Frontstretch Newsletter and I felt there were a few quirks I found worth sharing.
Drivers in NASCAR history who have led the most laps in four straight Cup races – and failed to win any of those events. Martin Truex Jr. avoided being the first with his feel-good triumph Sunday at Pocono. (For the record, he led a race-high 97 circuits).
Straight finishes of 37th or worse for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse wrecked at Pocono, claiming the brakes were failing on his Ford en route to 42nd.
Points Kyle Busch gained on 30th-place points man Trevor Bayne Sunday.
Points Busch remains behind Bayne for 30th in the standings. He needs to gain an average of 13 points on 30th over the next 12 races in order to sneak in.
- Poor Ryan Newman. The wreck with AJ Allmendinger Sunday left last year’s runner-up points man vulnerable, just 20 points ahead of Bowyer for the final spot in this year’s Chase. But Newman, quick to throw stones at the ‘Dinger should not forget about his 2014 last-lap tangle with Kyle Larson. Mistakes happen, and without the 50-point penalty from earlier this season, this wreck wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar screen for a quietly consistent No. 31 program. As for the ‘Dinger? Here’s his results since singing a contract extension with JTG Daugherty through 2020: 14th, 29th, 24th, 38th. Ouch.
- Last year at Michigan, Jeff Gordon qualified outside of row 1, then led 36 laps before track position doomed him to a sixth-place finish. If there’s one place to cure his ills, and right now there’s plenty of them on track Michigan would appear to be the place. Darkhorse? Try the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne, whose team led a lap last June and finished fifth. It feels like a Hendrick type of weekend if someone can finally knock Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick off their perch.