During the brouhaha over the Matt Kenseth–Joey Logano dustup two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, Kyle Busch said something that was largely overlooked in the aftermath of the incident: That it’s not just about what happened, but whose names were over the doors on the cars involved.
And it was easy to push the statement to the side; Busch has had enough issues in the past that he may be more heavily scrutinized, and that’s not necessarily wrong.
But his statement was absolutely correct. It does matter whose name is over the door.
The question is, does that have a negative impact on the sport? At first glance, it seems as though it would, and in some ways it does. But there’s more than one way to glance at the situation.
If a driver isn’t driving clean and is wantonly wrecking the competition, that should warrant heavier scrutiny the next time he causes an incident on the track. If a team is pushing the boundaries of the rules, them being targeted as the random car that NASCAR takes back to its R&D center for further scrutiny for several races is a good thing. In general, repeat offenders get more eyeballs on their behavior, and the reason is because they’re repeat offenders.
There are a couple of places where there’s potential for that negative impact, though. One is when inconsistency on NASCAR’s part is perceived by fans as favoritism toward one team or driver. Of course, that could be alleviated through consistent application of the rules, but so far that’s not happening.
Just this week, NASCAR confiscated the splitters from three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing entries prior to Sunday’s race when it appeared that the splitters had been altered with Bondo or a similar substance to get them closer to the ground. No further penalty was issued, and that didn’t sit well with some fans. The situation was not really similar to one earlier this season where Team Penske splitters were taken for being a hair too thin (which does happen with regular use); rather, these were altered to give the team an advantage.
Kyle Busch aside, NASCAR has appeared to be lenient to JGR after several inspection issues in recent years, so it’s easy to see why some think they’re not playing fair. Some cite the Toyota connection and the support the sport receives from the manufacturer, others the team owner, Joe Gibbs.
Is there merit to these concerns, or to others claiming Hendrick Motorsports (or some other team — you choose) gets special treatment? Well, maybe. Then again, others will claim that NASCAR comes down more heavily on whichever team is in the spotlight.
This is where it gets difficult for NASCAR. Penalties (or lack thereof) to big names always draw more scrutiny, and NASCAR doesn’t help its cause by not explaining why it makes the decisions it does. Overall, the perception of favoritism is a blemish on the sport, and in this case, NASCAR doesn’t do much to avert it.
The other side of the coin here lies among race fans, and that makes it trickier to navigate, because where NASCAR is supposed to be impartial, fans are most definitely partial. They should be; they’re fans and they all have their favorite drivers. But it paints the sport in a less-than-flattering light when fans who say they want consistency really don’t.
Fans are always going to take the side of their driver in an argument, and that’s one reason why race fans are a great group. But in a situation like Martinsville, there is a bit of a double standard. It’s hard to imagine that, no matter what went down at Kansas, if instead of Logano the other party had been Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or one of a handful of others, the reaction would have been the same as it was, whereas fans by and large supported Kenseth. And while Junior Nation can argue that its driver would never have done such a thing, there are no guarantees in racing. The cleanest drivers can get into someone and make them mad enough to retaliate.
And here’s the thing: Either Logano’s pass at Kansas was a racing deal or it wasn’t. Kenseth’s payback at Martinsville was over the top or it wasn’t. The name over the door shouldn’t matter here when it comes to penalties; the penalty should fit the infraction when all is said and done. That’s not the same as scrutinizing someone more closely after such an incident, which is likely to happen and if it prevents further issues going forward (further infractions while under probation, of course, should have increased consequences).
There’s no doubt that some drivers and teams are watched more closely than others based on prior conduct. That’s not a terrible thing; if they are caught bending another rule, the punishment fits the crime and the next guy who breaks the same rule gets the same punishment. Where it hurts the sport is when NASCAR applies the rules differently for different situations without explanation.
It’s also a black mark when fans call for different punishments for different drivers for the same infractions. That’s not going to help NASCAR be more consistent. If anything, it validates NASCAR’s inconsistency. That’s where the problem starts.
Does the name over the door matter? Yes, but it’s how people react to that name that tarnishes the sport’s integrity.