Another week, another announcement that a top-finishing NASCAR Sprint Cup race car did not pass post-race inspection — and another slap on the wrist for a race team.
In the last two races, here’s what’s happened: most recently, the No. 5 team for Hendrick Motorsports, driven by Kasey Kahne, failed post-race inspection at Dover International Speedway and lost 15 points along with having crew chief Keith Rodden’s pocketbook lightened by $25,000. That same weekend, Kansas Speedway winner Kyle Busch was without crew chief Adam Stevens after a shifty lugnut deal was discovered in post-race inspection after Busch visited Victory Lane the week before.
In both cases, the actual punishments probably don’t mean much. If Kahne misses the Chase by 15 points or fewer, or if Stevens gets suspended for another violation (he’s on probation through the end of the season, and another offense will mean a harsher punishment), it could have an impact, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unlikely either penalty will affect the final outcome for either team.
But taking those finishing positions away would.
And it’s time for NASCAR to start doing just that.
We’ve all heard the sanctioning body’s argument against changing the outcome of a race: fans at the track should go home knowing who won, or where their driver finished. They shouldn’t be reading in the Monday paper (or these days, website, possibly) that the results were changed.
That rings a little hollow. Fans aren’t stupid; most would likely understand just fine that a cheated-up car found after the fact could change the outcome. I’d venture to say that most would approve of NASCAR taking a firmer stance.
There are a couple of variations on the theme that NASCAR could take. One, of course, would be simply to take the finishing position and all points earned from any team who failed post-race inspection for any reason. Both simple and consistent.
The other is to approach situations on a somewhat individual basis. Cars do get damage during races, and things break. If a team can prove its car failed inspection because of damage or part failure, then perhaps taking the finish is a bit too harsh. Things happen, and a car that’s a ten-thousandth of an inch off somewhere after a short track race with lots of contact isn’t quite the same in most people’s minds as one that’s been intentionally altered to gain an unfair advantage.
The problem with the first approach is that, while simple and consistent, it’s not necessarily fair. To take a win from a team because something broke on the car just doesn’t sit right. And there’s a door cracked open by such a rule, one where a driver could take advantage of a competitor by intentionally causing damage to his car. That’s not what the sport is about.
The second approach, while more fair, is not simple and could lead to at least the appearance of inconsistency, a problem with which NASCAR already contends. While most fans understand the difference between a blatant cheat and a part failure, there is a lot of grey area in between. For instance, is there a tolerance? Does a 10th of an inch mean losing the finishing spot, but a 12th of an inch not?
Remember the penalty Clint Bowyer faced a number of years ago after the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway? The violation was a fraction of a fraction of an inch, and there were questions as to whether damage sustained during the race played a role. On one hand, taking a finishing position in a situation that ambiguous is tricky. On the other hand, that infraction resulted in a penalty equal to more points than Bowyer earned in that race, which in the end is much less fair than taking the points earned only in that race would have been.
From the angle of what’s best for the sport, striking the finish would be a solution to more problems than it would create. In the end, as long as NASCAR was consistent in taking finishes away from everyone with a violation or had a structured system in place that made sense to most reasonable race fans, it’s better than the current system, which comes across as arbitrary and reeking of favoritism.
From the angle of race fans, it is a bit more problematic, because to many, what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. There are those who would cheer for a win taken from some drivers but who would practically storm the gates at Daytona Beach if it were others. If NASCAR is to take post-race infractions seriously, the fans have to as well.
And I think that most fans do; most would understand just fine if the guy who crossed the finish line first ultimately wound up last on the score sheet if his car wasn’t legal. And a legal car getting the win when all is said and done is what fans should be able to expect. There would certainly be more incentive for teams to play within the rules (though it can be argued that “within the rules” should be a much bigger box than it currently is) if they knew they’d get no points for their effort.
With the technology NASCAR has to enforce the rules, and the rules being the same for everyone, perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at what’s really a fitting punishment for in-race violations, and what’s merely lip service.
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