Sometimes there’s just no gray area. In the presence of a written rule known to all competitors before a sporting event, you’re either legal or you aren’t — y’iz or y’ain’t.
But after the wildly popular (OK, sparsely attended, barely watched and widely ignored) Chicagoland Speedway Sprint Cup Series Chase kick-off race, NASCAR made a nearly unprecedented decision. Despite having a rule on the books with a specified punishment for an infraction, it decided the rule was too picky and the punishment too harsh. So despite failing post-race LIS inspection both Martin Truex, Jr., who won the race, and Jimmie Johnson received no sort of censure, not even having their crew chief have to wear an eye patch with a parrot on their shoulder and holler, “arr-arr-arr” over the radio several times during the New Hampshire Motor Speedway race.
So there were no penalties, right? Well, one could present a valid argument that the drivers and teams whose cars were found to be legal after the race were penalized. Had they known the rule wouldn’t be enforced after the race, they could have modified their cars and presumably made them faster as well.
Unsurprisingly, the entire boondoggle emerged as a consequence of the elimination-style Chase, which is about as well-thought-out and -constructed as a bobblehead doll imported from North Korea. Because Truex won the race (and of course the penalty wasn’t sufficient to cause the victory to be encumbered, which is to say you keep the race win but derive no benefit from it), the 10- or even 15-point penalty he might have been hit with would have had absolutely no impact on him or his team.
Given the win was upheld, Truex and the No. 78 bunch had punched their ticket to the 12 Drummers Drumming Round, or whatever it’s called. Meanwhile, had Johnson been issued the 10-point penalty he faced under the rule, well, gosh (let me grab a tissue here), he’d have been behind 10 lords a-leaping tied for 13th with Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon. He’d have been facing potential elimination! And it would have been a potential ecological disaster as well.
As you surely know (as long as you’re obsessed with minutiae, fascinated by trivia or watch a local news program that needs to find crap to fill out two-and-a-half hours of evening news on a slow day), much of the country is facing is a pumpkin crisis, and at the worst potential time. Yes, how will children be able to exercise their constitutionally protected and God-given right to celebrate Halloween (which is, um, actually a pagan holiday) without pumpkins? But unusually hot and dry conditions have caused a lousy pumpkin harvest. And cheaters, cheaters are pumpkin eaters.
So with NASCAR commuting the sentences of two cheating pumpkin eaters, it’s increased the availability of pumpkins and saved Halloween, which means a potential Cup driver of the class of 2028 will be trick-or-treating at Rick Hendrick and Johnson’s (the cheater) house this Halloween.
OK, yes, there’d have been a disparity in the severity of the punishment between two drivers who’d been caught with equal infractions afoul of the rulebook. So let Truex keep his win but still access the 10-point penalty so he would have ended with 34 points rather than 44. Oh, and since he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, eliminate the free pass into the next round of the Chase. That bonus only applies if your car is found to be Legal Eagle after the race.
As for Johnson, well, gosh, he would have been in a hole getting nailed for cheating. Would have helped balance the account for all the times he got away with it previously. You’ll recall prior to the Talladega Superspeedway Chase race in 2011 that Johnson’s crew chief leaned into the car prior to the start and told Johnson that if he were to win that day’s race, he’d have to back the car into the wall celebrating the win. (To his credit, Johnson seemed stunned by the request.)
The clear implication was that the car was illegal prior to the race and wouldn’t have gotten through post-race tech. But no penalty was issued. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. For the record, had the penalty been let stand at 10 points, Johnson, based on his eighth-place finish at Loudon, would currently be 12th in the standings, three points ahead of Kyle Larson going into Dover.
Yep, I’ll have to admit last week’s rules change was a new one on me. Oh, NASCAR has changed the rules the way Imelda Marcos changed footwear at times, but I can’t ever recall them making the rules change retroactive. But of course NASCAR only made it retroactive one week. Other drivers and teams who ran afoul of the same rule earlier in the year and had their playoff ambitions thwarted didn’t get those points back, nor did the teams get the money they had paid in fines refunded. But NASCAR just wants to be fair, it says, because fairness is such a hallmark of its august organization (,” he banged out on the keyboard, trying but failing to keep a straight face.) NASCAR simply doesn’t want a championship to be decided by points penalties. My guess is that the majority of race fans don’t want a championship going to a team that cheated to achieve it.
Some have pointed out that any sort of penalty seems excessive when infractions are measured in thousandth of an inch. First, one must remember that NASCAR isn’t always quite so forgiving as it was last week. Just ask Carl Long, who got socked with a $200,000 fine for an over-sized engine that measured 358.19 cubic inches when the rule sets a maximum of 358 cubic inches. If I’m doing the math correctly (a fool’s bet), that’s a 0.05 percent deviance from the rule. That’s also a $1 million-per-cubic-inch penalty. .19 of a cubic inch is smaller than a child’s thimble, and even the best engine builders in the sport say there could be of no conceivable horsepower advantage given the tiny deviation from standard. Yet since Long has been unable to pay that fine he’s basically been banned from Cup competition since 2009.
What teams are trying to get away with by such small alterations in the rear suspension geometry is lost to me, but my guess is that there was some performance advantage to be found in that area, and as such the penalties increase the bigger the deviation from the standard. Yes, stuff can move around and shift in and on a racecar during an event, but by now the teams now by how much and under what circumstances. Some teams are making allowances to be certain that under worst possible case scenarios they won’t fail post-race tech. Other teams choose to gamble they won’t get caught. When those teams pushing the limit don’t get caught, or in this case get caught then have the penalty waived, they have suffered a competitive disadvantage in an attempt to abide by a rulebook by which all teams are supposed to be bound.
This particular set of rules was enacted in reaction to cars that were very clearly dog-tracking around the track, the rear drive axle assemblies clearly askew to the body and chassis, sort of like the old Novas that had been poorly repaired after a traffic accident back in the days when I was still in school. The Hendrick Motorsports cars were the most visible flagrant offenders, and they were winning a lot of races and championships. Secrets don’t stay secret long in the garage area, and before long other teams were trying the same tricks, with various degrees of success. NASCAR drew a line in the sand to stop the practice, then last week took its stick and changed the line into a hopscotch board. Oh, but we weren’t cheating by much, one crew chief will swear. True enough. Just as there’s less spam in bacon, eggs, spam and sausage than there is in spam, spam, spam, spam, spam and eggs. But there’s still spam. And I don’t like spam, silly Vikings.
For years, NASCAR has spun an apocryphal fairy tale that it doesn’t want to take a win away from a driver who crossed the finish line first because it would confuse fans. If said fans had been at the track and saw Robby Racer put a good whupping on the field but Robby was disqualified after the race for cheating, that wouldn’t be fair to the fans. Though of course, Robby’s cheating hadn’t been fair to the drivers he beat that day. And golly gee, Auntie Em, we’re not in the dark ages of information technology anymore. Perhaps back in the day a fan would have no idea that the driver they thought they’d seen win at the track had been disqualified afterward until they read about in the newspaper the next day.
Nowadays that same fan would probably receive a tweet about what had happened before he or she got out of the parking lot after the race. (Of course at some tracks a child could be conceived in a car, delivered and be ready for college by the time his family truckster got out of the parking lot.) Said fan could then merrily debate the fairness of such a penalty with other fans who were both pro and con on the issue on numerous sites, message boards, comments sections, etc. Given the amount and rapidity of information available about the sport through electronic mediums, a fan who chooses to search it out can know more about what’s going on in the sport than Brian France. Of course, the average fire hydrant knows more about what’s going on in NASCAR than Brian France.
One reason the teams and drivers seem somewhat relieved by the rules change is an underlying mistrust of the Laser Inspection System. Many have said that the system NASCAR uses, which must be moved from track to track and set up often, seems to flag an abnormally high number of cars until after it’s recalibrated, at which point those same cars pass through inspection without having been modified. Yes, when you’re trying to measure small increments, the measuring devices themselves must be precise. In addition to providing accurate results, those results must be repeatable if they are to be used to flag violators. If the current system is not up to the task, new equipment, perhaps from a different vendor, needs to be considered in short order.
In the midst of all the confusion caused by its rapid about-face on the rules, NASCAR did what it does best in uncertain times: further muddy the waters. During the drivers’ meeting Sunday at NHIS, NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell, who seems to have been assigned Mike Helton’s old duties of taking one for the team on indefensible situations, warned the teams and drivers NASCAR was putting its foot down, and down hard — just as soon as it could find a still steaming pile of dog poop, one would presume.
We’ve all seen drivers swerving their cars back and forth after the race is over, and they’re often reminded to do so over their radios. In some instances, drivers have even purposely bumped into and sideswiped one another. It’s widely held that those drivers are trying to circumvent post-race inspection and somehow knock their suspension settings back into tolerance. That seems a rather inexact science to me, but NASCAR has heard the same rumors and isn’t at all pleased.
O’Donnell warned those assembled, “I want to make clear to everybody here that in NASCAR’s judgment, any measures that are taken to circumvent what happens for postrace inspection, we are going to react.” Left unsaid is how NASCAR’s going to react. Given the general amnesty announced after Chicagoland Speedway, one would presume it’s now irritated and could in fact become even more irritated.
“We know that’s subjective but ask all of you not to put it in our hands because we will react if we have to,” O’Donnell continued in a classic example of locking the barn door after the horse is gone. But the warning is clear. In the past when NASCAR has had to make subjective judgments, it has, in fact, routinely bollixed things up to a degree where it’s drawn angry accusations of favoritism and outright stupidity. And one has to be pretty certain they are among NASCAR’s favorites to risk letting them make judgment calls.
“I think everybody knows what that means,” O’Donnell went on without explaining exactly what “that” is or what it means. “We couldn’t be more clear. I hope everybody agrees with that.” Psychics and mind readers might be able to, but not the fans who follow the sport. What exactly is banned and what is the penalty for violating that ban? And will that penalty be applied routinely week after week for similar infractions?
In fact, in stick-and-ball sports, the officials in some cases must be subjective. Back in the era when I watched football, I recall more than a few games with championship implications that were decided by a questionable pass interference call or whether an official decided the ball had broken the plane of the goal line. Some folks have told me that in the playoffs, officials might swallow their whistles on questionable calls not wanting to directly influence the outcome of the game on a judgment call. That might work in a football game with 10 different angles of replays available, as well as lengthy stoppages of play to allow officials to conduct reviews. It doesn’t work at 185 mph.
Perhaps the drivers did have some idea what was being discussed. It was notable after Sunday’s race that Harvick went to pit road for some measurements before returning to the track to celebrate his win. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that he didn’t swerve the car side to side. Perhaps at that point he was on the radio asking what he was and wasn’t allowed to do prior to lighting up his rear tires. Harvick, one might recall since it was just about exactly a year ago, entered last fall’s Dover race needing to win to advance to the next round of the playoffs. And he won all right — in dominating fashion leading 355 of 400 laps and cruising to a 2.6-second win over Kyle Busch. Of course, NASCAR never got a chance to give Harvick’s Chevy a good once over after that race to see what made it so fast. Harvick, accidentally I’m certain, had backed the No. 4 car hard into the wall while doing victory doughnuts — which might very well be the sort of nefarious conduct that now annoys NASCAR to the point it might, in fact, eventually do something about it though nobody is quite sure what or if it will happen.
As far as post-race celebrations, admittedly I’m long on questions and short on answers. While I think they burnouts and donuts are a bit passé and show a reckless disregard for the cost of the drivetrain and the care with which it’s assembled in one of these Cup cars, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, nor do I want to see a return to the days when NASCAR had officials holding some sort of PCV device widely derided as “the fence” to keep drivers from climbing atop their cars to celebrate victories or knock oversize props from race sponsors (often rival sponsors to that driver’s primary sponsor) off the roof of the car. Yes, even Jeff Gordon once paid a hefty fine for knocking an inflatable Coke bottle off his winning car. And if you go way back with the sport, you might decide NASCAR once decided it was going to run a few cars of different makes on a mobile dyno right after the race to see who was making what sort of horsepower. NASCAR’s Gary Nelson jumped in the No. 28 car and promptly blew the engine to smithereens to the considerable chagrin of Robert Yates and Ernie Irvan.
It’s unfortunate but true. As long as there have been competitive sports there have always been individuals or teams that have tried to circumvent the rules to gain an unfair advantage. No less a source than Richard Petty once said, “If you’re going to cheat, cheat neat.” In other words, it’s only cheating if you get caught. Junior Johnson once admitted he’d bring cars to the inspection barn with several blatantly illegal pieces. NASCAR would find those and give him a good scolding while overlooking the one or two more subtle modifications Johnson was hoping to sneak through inspection.
The only solution for NASCAR is to define what the limits are and to warn competitors that those who exceed those limits are going to face swift, certain and severe punishment. Once a couple drivers get stripped of wins and tossed out of championship contention, all the teams will get the message. The only thing worse than having fans leave the track not actually knowing who had won the race is to have them leave the track not knowing if the driver who won did so without cheating.
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