NASCAR did something this week that should, on one level, be applauded: the sanctioning body made a rules change to post-race penalty procedures because the rule it had adopted proved to be unfair when applied in competition. That, in itself, is an important step.
Here’s what happened: Last week, NASCAR said that if a Chase car won the race but iriled post-race laser or lugnut inspection by a certain degree (a P4 penalty), the win would stand but not guarantee the driver a bye into the next round of the Chase.
The problem was that there was no provision for lesser infractions. So when Martin Truex, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson both failed laser inspection after Chicagoland Speedway, the disparity became glaringly apparent. For Truex, because he won the race and the infraction wasn’t great enough to take away his guaranteed spot in the next round, a 10- or 15-point penalty was basically meaningless; he’d move on and the points reset would erase any deficit.
For Johnson, though, the same penalty, for the same degree of infraction, could have potentially ended his Chase bid. That’s not right, and NASCAR realized that, changing the rule so that drivers will not be penalized for laser inspection failures that would have been less than a P4 infraction. As a result, neither Truex nor Johnson received a penalty and remain where they stood in points after the race. The decision was fair to both drivers, and because of that, commendable.
But the fact remains that Truex and Johnson failed post-race inspection. Other teams did not.
And on that level, the ruling is still unfair.
NASCAR had three options: penalize both drivers by 10 or 15 points even though it would have been a joke for Truex and damaging for Johnson, not penalize either driver or change the rule to say that any post-race infraction would result in the win not guaranteeing entry in the next round and penalizing equally. The second, which was the ultimate decision, was fair in that it eliminated a huge disparity in the severity of what was essentially the same penalty.
But NASCAR should have employed the third.
Remember, Truex and Johnson failed post-race tech because their cars were not within NASCAR’s rules. It shouldn’t matter how far out of tolerance those cars were; they weren’t legal after the race. What would have made sense, since NASCAR is adamant that it will ever actually strip finishing positions because it would confuse fans, would have been to penalize both drivers and make both race their way into the next round of the Chase.
There is undoubtedly a difference between having a rear wheel a degree outside the rules and something more completely blatant, like soaking tires or using fuel additives, but does that really matter to fans when it comes to post-race penalties?
In the modern world of instant information, allowing drivers to keep wins (or any other finish) with an illegal car makes less and less sense. Fans aren’t stupid; they know results are unofficial until NASCAR reviews them on Monday, and they know that a car is either legal post-race or it isn’t. There’s no such thing as sort-of-pregnant and there’s no such thing as a sort-of-illegal racecar.
That’s not to say NASCAR couldn’t drop the hammer further for the really big stuff. Fines and suspensions are, after all, still on the table, and that’s where degrees should come into play. There should be no question of degrees when it comes to passing inspection and not being penalized; a legal car didn’t win if an illegal one did, and that’s not fair to the legal team — or to race fans, who deserve to see a legal car in Victory Lane or at least know that that team will get the trophy Monday at the shop.
Without a doubt, NASCAR must, above all, be fair. To that end, the rule change was the right move to make, because the alternative was intrinsically unfair.
But it’s still not quite fair. Joey Logano finished second but didn’t fail post-race inspection. A lot of other drivers got lower finishes than Truex, Johnson or both, and they had legal cars.
Somehow, something’s still not quite fair.
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