Did You Notice? … NASCAR and its teams are facing a showdown over pre- and post-race inspection? There’s been a continual back-and-forth this season between inspectors and teams; time and again, we’ve seen cars forced to start at the rear of the field after failing to get cleared in time for qualifying. There’s also been issues in pre-race inspection, most notably at Dover when Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman got sent to the rear.
Now, there’s a clear pattern in terms of post-race inspection problems. Take a look at the list of drivers docked for rear window violations this season.
2018 REAR WINDOW PENALTIES
MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES
Kevin Harvick: Las Vegas, 20 driver/owner points deducted
Chase Elliott: Texas, 20 driver/owner points deducted
Daniel Suarez: Dover, 20 driver/owner points deducted
Clint Bowyer: Dover, 20 driver/owner points deducted
Kyle Larson: Kansas, 20 driver/owner points deducted
Among those represented on that list: four major NASCAR multi-car teams, all three manufacturers and four drivers currently in playoff position. The problem is widespread in the latest quest for teams to find a gray area; the violations remind me of the rear skew we saw a few years back that had everyone driving crooked until NASCAR put the hammer down. Among those teams affected in the process were powerhouses Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports.
Kyle Larson and the No. 42 team have received an L1 penalty after Kansas.
“Rear window not flush with deck lid."- NASCAR
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 15, 2018
The issues have gotten widespread enough NASCAR Vice President Scott Miller took to the airwaves to send a warning shot. Miller claimed on SIRIUS XM Radio Tuesday night the next car to be penalized would get a 40-point hit to their total along with a three-race car chief suspension. It’s almost a full race’s worth of points, the type of consequences which should leave teams quaking in their boots.
But are they?
More than at any time I’ve seen, race teams and owners are speaking up against NASCAR penalties and procedures. People appear upset over the nitpicking surrounding inspection, a lagging business model in the wake of disappearing sponsorship and pit road adjustments like the new NASCAR-issued air guns. Officiating calls from missing lug nut penalties to tire violations are seemingly getting questioned every week.
20 years ago, this type of mutiny would be quelled by old NASCAR head honcho Bill France Jr. walking into a meeting and putting the hammer down. This sport had the type of benevolent dictatorship where if you didn’t like the way the rules were made, well, there’s a door to your right and some lovely consolation sheet metal to sell on your way out.
But who’s the benevolent dictator now? NASCAR President Brent Dewar, the corporate face becoming more of a presence as a leader in recent years? Vice President Steve O’Donnell? Miller? None of them have the ultimate authority and name value of the Frances, the family who for better or worse has owned this sport since its inception in 1948.
So where is that guy, Brian France, these days? The answer is nowhere to be found amidst a confirmed report the entire sport is up for sale. And when the boss is away, well… everyone else will jostle for power. Owners emboldened by a charter system that guarantees them starting spots and the cold reality no one else wants to take their place are fighting NASCAR’s rules and regulations with increased ferocity. There’s a recognition officials trying to lay the hammer down right now don’t have the same authority. Heck, a potential sale to an unknown buyer could leave their own jobs hanging in the balance.
And a potential sale, after all, won’t be as valuable without any cars on the grid. That leaves owners recognizing their power, looking for their piece of the pie and armed with their own ideas to revitalize the sport. What’s stopping them here from saying, “So what?”
Plus, in the case of drivers like Harvick, a 40-point penalty won’t do much. He’s already guaranteed a spot in the postseason with more playoff points than anyone else on the grid thus far. The only threat packing a serious punch is a six-figure fine, suspensions that take effect during the playoffs or the threat of losing a postseason spot (See: Joey Logano at Richmond last year).
I don’t think NASCAR will go there. But I don’t think teams are backing down on trying to gain an edge with this rigid package, either. So who will bluff first?
For the first time in seemingly forever, it may not be the owners.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- NASCAR’s All-Star Race, after three transfers from the Monster Energy Open, will have 20 cars in the starting lineup. There’s an average of 38 drivers on the grid each week so far this season. That means, in the sport’s calculation, 53% of the field is All-Star caliber. Maybe that’s part of the problem here? Jamie McMurray is a great guy but it feels like a stretch for drivers with his stat line to earn an automatic bid. By comparison, an average of 7% of NBA players are considered All-Stars. Less than 10 percent of MLB players make the cut and the numbers are even lower for the NFL.
I understand NASCAR can’t drop that low. You can’t have a race with just the Championship 4, right? But maybe there should be a tighter standard going forward. Unfortunately, gone are the days when 100-110 drivers would attempt at least one race over the course of the season. Just like 16 playoff spots feel like too much… 20-21 is beginning to seem like overkill.
- The incident between Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tells me more about Elliott, regardless of fault. What we do know is Elliott is beyond frustrated with a season that’s been a clear step back. 89 races into his career, there are zero wins and his No. 9 Chevrolet isn’t showing the speed to run up front anytime soon. He’s led only eight laps, is on pace for a career low in lead-lap finishes (seven in 12 races) and has suffered through multiple NASCAR penalties already this season. The sport’s likely new Most Popular Driver is running out of patience for both the new Camaro and his team.