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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Leadership of NASCAR Penalizes Kevin Harvick Along With Penalizing Itself

NASCAR may have penalized Kevin Harvick Wednesday (Nov. 7) after the AAA Texas 500 but it may also want to look at where it’s pointing the finger. For what seems to be the umpteenth time this season the sport has succeeded at poking itself straight in the eye.

A year marked by negative story after negative story in stock car racing found yet another way to pile on itself. Harvick’s 40-point penalty, assessed after the Texas Motor Speedway race for illegal spoiler modifications leaves his championship hopes in jeopardy. The eight-time winner saw his automatic bid stripped for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway; he’s just three points ahead of the cutline. He’ll also be without crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith for the final two races; his No. 4 team was fined $75,000.

To put it bluntly, officials discovered Harvick cheated and his team did nothing to deny it. Stewart-Haas Racing Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli announced they would not appeal.

“We work tirelessly across every inch of our race cars to create speed,” Zipadelli said. “Unfortunately, NASCAR determined we ventured into an area not accommodated by its rulebook.”

Suddenly, the sport’s leading winner this season will finish the year under a black cloud. Harvick’s continued inclusion in the playoffs is a no-win situation, regardless of what happens next. If the driver somehow wins a title? Fans will think he cheated to get there. And if he doesn’t? Arguably the sport’s most dominant team this season won’t be a factor in its championship race.

The announcement itself from NASCAR was the latest in a long line of stumbles. From the very start of the year, when Austin Dillon turned Aric Almirola on the last lap of the Daytona 500, the sport can’t seem to get out of its own way. The frequency of rules violations along with inconsistent penalties applied to them is an overpowering negative storyline.

Officials blowing their whistle have even influenced the most exciting finishes, turning them controversial. The playoffs are the most recent example, defined by silly mistakes that have nothing to do with on-track speed. Pit road speeding, uncontrolled tires, even driving through empty pit boxes, like Martin Truex Jr. did last week, have been the “moments to remember.” More often than not, the fastest car has been hit with these mistakes, handing the victory to an unsuspecting bystander.

Are those really upsets? Sounds more like reasons to make fans upset. How can you sell the house of NASCAR when all your realtors do is point out all the little things wrong with your house? Each week, the focus is on that chip on the bathroom tile or some peeling paint rather than the beauty of the house itself. Perhaps it’s because the racing has been less than beautiful on track, producing a number of forgettable races these playoffs other than Martinsville and the Charlotte ROVAL.

Being on track is only half the battle. The ugliness of inspection is far worse, a failed process which starts the second NASCAR’s garage door opens. Almost weekly, a litany of drivers fail pre-race inspection and have to start their race in the rear. Qualifying has become not a matter of who’s the fastest but who can flip through the Algebra textbook – er, rulebook – in time to out-bamboozle NASCAR officials and get your car onto the grid in time.

Except it seems even when NASCAR catches a culprit, far more slip through the cracks. Harvick joined Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney as rule breakers after Texas Motor Speedway. That means the sport went three-for-three on finding cheaters (only a handful of cars are taken to the sport’s R&D Center for detailed evaluation). It makes you wonder how many other cars were cheating. Five? 10? Keep in mind Jones and Blaney were once part of these playoffs, too.

It’s a long line of law-breaking that puts the sport in the news for all the wrong reasons, a full 60+ hours after the end of the race. Could you imagine watching an NFL game Sunday night and then the score gets reversed on Wednesday? That type of delayed penalty never happens in the stick-and-ball world, golf, curling and pretty much any other organized sport known to man.

Yet it’s the latest in a disturbing pattern of missteps for an organization which remains without true leadership. Consider the NASCAR news stories in just the past week alone….

  • Fanatics, whose track merchandising deal runs through 2024, chooses to pull out six years early due to disappointing revenue and performance. No replacement is immediately announced for the souvenir stands that were once a lifeblood of the at-track experience.
  • Jimmie Johnson was sent to the rear of the field before the start of the Texas Cup race for a penalty that didn’t exist. Officials sent him there for failing pre-race inspection twice when the threshold is failing three times. Johnson should have lost track time at Phoenix instead; once NASCAR discovered the error, midway through the race there was nothing it could do to correct it. It was an embarrassing moment an apology doesn’t fully correct.
  • Harvick’s car is found to be illegal in teardown a full two days after the Texas race. Even then, the penalty does not get released until Wednesday morning.

These cases were each handled by a different branch of NASCAR leadership: President Steve Phelps, Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell and Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. All of them are competent, doing their best in a challenging environment. But it’s three people playing defense on three different messages when none of them are fully in charge.

Then again, who really is running NASCAR right now? That continues to be the biggest problem. Any of these issues should have been large enough to bring a sport’s CEO, the Roger Goodell, out of the woodwork to answer to the fans who make the sport possible. But Jim France, while a presence at the track, is nowhere to be found in front of the camera. He still hasn’t given a full press conference while his nephew remains MIA. Brian France has taken a leave of absence as CEO after being charged with a DUI and drug possession in August. That traffic stop in the Hamptons and the mugshot is the last we’ve seen of him. No one knows if, when and how he’ll be back.

In his absence, well-minded people do their best to steer a NASCAR ship that doesn’t appear to have a firm sense of direction or purpose. And for every step forward, the sport seems to take two steps back. An announcement at Martinsville Rick Hendrick had found full-season sponsorship, Ally Financial, to replace departing Lowe’s for Johnson’s No. 48 was counterbalanced by Fanatics bolting. Keep in mind, too, the sport’s reigning championship team in Furniture Row Racing is set to shut down at the end of the season. 2018 could end with Martin Truex Jr. holding the trophy and then jumping to Joe Gibbs Racing next season while his equipment gets auctioned to the highest bidder.

At least Harvick’s team vowed to trudge on, attempting to put the penalty behind them. Labeled a cheater, NASCAR still has given them an opportunity at redemption.

If only they could find a way to redeem themselves.

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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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25 comments

  1. “Unfortunately, NASCAR determined we ventured into an area not accommodated by its rulebook.”
    I like that phrase, though I imagine a play-by-play person will probably say a player jumped off-sides, rather than say a player just ventured into an area not accommodated by the NFL/NCAA rule book.

    “That type of delayed penalty never happens in the stick-and-ball world, golf, curling and pretty much any other organized sport known to man.” It is rare, if ever, a win is taken away after the fact, but the issuing of monetary and/or suspension penalties well after the game is a weekly occurrence in the NFL, and is common in MLB (I can not comment on the NBA, the PGA, or other sports); those delayed penalties tend to occur after big-wigs at the big office perform film and incident review, and subsequently apply the pertinent rules and precedence to a player’s actions.

  2. Sad, but one has to wonder about all the wins this year. Ahead of the field, blah, blah, blah. Same could be said for the clear air TOYS, they just never seem to get caught. Whatever…Tis a taint on the whole sport. And if he wins Homestead, well…….one could yell CHEATER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! From reading if I read the right reports, they totally altered or replaced the NASCAR required part, and it was only caught because some official thought something looked odd? NASCAR never checked it because it was their mandated part. WTF? Seems like they got away with it for some time, or one can infer.

  3. Didn’t the TV broadcast not point this fact out when they were dominating at Talladega earlier in the playoffs? I recall they drawing attention to the fact their spoilers were yawed out to the right further than the Penske Fords. Stewart Haas has been doing this all year. Why did it take until now to look at this so close when clearly even those in the booth could see this was off.

  4. My understanding is Nascar will do a tear-down inspection post-race at Homestead (rather than a tear-down inspection at its usual location).
    I personally do not mind waiting, prior to the final two races, until mid-week to learn the results of a detailed post-race inspection.
    I would recommend a tear-down inspection at Phoenix immediately post-race, since the outcome of the post-Phoenix inspection might influence inclusion, or exclusion, in the final four – teams should know by this Sunday evening whether or not the team is included in the final four, and point deductions or an encumbrance imposed by inspection penalties might influence qualification in the final four.

    I agree Nascar royally erred in the Johnson penalty (by having the #48 starting at the rear of the field) at Texas; but, this is not the first time a team has been sent to the rear for failing pre-race inspections, and the system used within Nascar apparently has been the same for all of the prior pre-race inspection failures; I would have expected the all-knowing media to have detected the system used by Nascar involved too many moving parts, and the system could have previously been corrected, had any of the all-knowing media cared to ask a few questions (I might add, according to one report, Nascar informed the media of the #48 penalty 10 minutes before Knaus learned of the penalty, and by the time Knaus was informed, Knaus could not do much in the way of an appeal as the cars by then were rolling onto the track; I have yet to read of a media member complaining of being informed of the #48 penalty ten minutes before the team was informed).

  5. This type of stuff is never going away. This is auto racing. In no other sport, in the key piece of equipment as complex or important as the car is to NASCAR. I personally wish they would get to a system where a through post-race inspection can take place at the track, and if a car is illegal, the team loses the win and any benefits of the finish. I don’t get the rant in this article about the on-track penalty calls. Most of those are black and white. Pit road speed is electronically timed, driving through too many stalls is usually obvious to spot. The one that is a judgment call is “uncontrolled tire”. However, that’s no different than the myriad of judgment calls that happen daily in sports. I’m sorry, but this is auto racing. The fastest car doesn’t always win. It almost like your asking NASCAR to swallow the whistle just for the sake of appearances. It sounds like this Harvick penalty was clear-cut, and not just playing in the “grey area”. There is an unfortunate expectation now of many in both the fan base and media that every race has to be an instant classic with no controversy, or we’re all doomed. One day NASCAR is bad because they are trying too hard to be like “stick ball”, and the next day bad because they do something that isn’t done in “stick and ball”.

  6. What would happen if this same scenario happens at Homestead? Any of the drivers in the Championship 4 wins the race and therefore the championship, his car is torn down and found to be illegal. What happens? Since NASCAR doesn’t strip the win, would they strip the championship?

    • Racing in Mississauga

      Fascinating questions, Greg! What NASCAR should do prior to the race at Homestead is to have two very detailed inspection of the four cars contending for the Championship. The first one would be before qualifying and then extensive and intensive inspection would be done again after qualifying. After this inspection, NASCAR would quarantine the four cars until race time. If one or more of the cars fail the post qualifying inspection, the car or cars would be declared not eligible to run for the championship but would be allowed to race once fixed. The winning car would be reinspected and if it fails, they go the next of the four contenders until a championship is decided. If NASCAR does not take steps to ensure integrity of the race, the results will be very much open to manipulation in the spirit of “debris” cautions. Sadly, today there is little trust in NASCAR’s ability to manage the series.

    • If the championship winning car failed post-race inspection nobody would ever hear about it, depending on the manufacturer.

  7. How many of the top 20 finishers on a weekly basis are 100% legal? I bet none are. I think most of us would agree that any driver of a highly funded team is a great driver. If that’s the case, and each car is built in accordance to the rules, how do you have cars with 8 second leads over a man running 2nd or 3rd? I hate when a team gets caught and argues that the infraction didn’t help the car. If that’s the case, build it legally.

  8. its called “the racers edge” Sorry for Harvick not for NASCAR. Wont tarnish a title in my view

  9. Can someone answer this for me? The rear spoiler is not exactly hidden – it’s sticking out there for all to see. It wouldn’t require any tear down to find. So why would the spoiler height and/or placement not be caught in pre race or pre qualifying inspection? Further, if they passed inspection then were allowed to do any work on the car, why wouldn’t it have to pass inspection again? Seems this kind of infraction should have been caught before the car went out on the grid to start the race.

    In regards to the main gist of the article; I’ve only been following NASCAR since ’96, and it’s seemed the organization has always had a propensity to trip over its own feet.

  10. Nascar has been around 70 years (1949) and through all of those there has been cheating, always has and always will be. Manufacturers have dropped out, sponsors come and go and you ain’t cheatin’ til you get caught!

    Love this sport ain’t nothing like it! On to Phoenix!

  11. My understanding is that an official at the track thought something was ‘off’ about the car during inspection, but couldn’t put his finger on what. IMO, they should have taken the car then and there and figured it out. If they thought it was wonky at the track, that was the time to take action, NOT days after the race. Either loosen up the rules, or forget taking the cars back to Charlotte for tear down. do it at the track. If a team has to rebuild and illegal car, that’s their problem.

  12. If Fanatics can get out early maybe Monster can do it too. They can’t be happy. I wonder what Harvick’s sponsors think?

  13. You raise a lot of good points Tom. While rules should be clear and written in black and white, let’s be honest, the fact that a complex machine is part of the equation means that there are hundreds of areas where cheating could take place. NASCAR can’t find them all but must do what they can and when they find an infraction make an example out of the perpetrator. As an analogy I will point out that heroin is clearly illegal but it is apparently easy to obtain based on what we hear in the news. There is no way that law enforcement can stop it from coming in because, much like a car, there are just too many places to police 100%. So they catch whatever they can and punish those caught as a deterrent. Probably 1 out of a 1000 get caught. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true of those who cheat in NASCAR. So what are you suggesting to mitigate this reality of policing something that can’t realistically be policed with 100% accuracy? Stop trying? Not punish the offender when they are caught? Everything you state is correct but I don’t think there is an answer.

  14. I’m having a hard time understanding how a rules violation by a race team is a black eye for Nascar and not the team. Should Nascar have turned a blind eye to the violation simply because Kevin Harvick is a strong playoff contender and dominated the race? You don’t not call holding on a football team because it’s Alabama and they’re blowing out their opponent. Look, I understand that Nascar’s enforcement of the rules is often spotty and inconsistent, but in a black-and-white situation like spoiler height, it would truly have been a black eye for Nascar if they had knowingly ignored the violation.

    Of course, it would help if the rules weren’t seemingly written on an etch-a-sketch.

  15. NASCAR doesn’t want Ford to win. They made “the call” to insure two Toyotas (or perhaps just one Ford) in the Champ Four at Homestead. Shameful.

  16. The stupidest penalty I’ve ever seen in any sport:

    Clint Bowyer’s crew sitting on the pit wall, feet in the pit box, but clearly not part of the pit stop. Result: another pass through penalty for Bowyer.

    • I agree the penalty in Bowyer’s pit box was stupid. Makes a person wonder why the crewmember wasn’t warned by a NASCAR official first since it was such a trivial violation.

  17. The only thing that will save NASCAR is to start running stock bodies on the cars again with sealed engines. OH and JJ should get his rightful qualification place at the remaining tracks, and the offending officers of NASCAR should throwed in the pokey for a weekend.

  18. Every point the author made is correct and spot on. Yet, while not absolving nascar I think the teams bear a large share of the responsibility.
    IMHO what is going on now is a tug of war, a power struggle if you will between the teams and Nascar. Whichever one wins, they both end up losing as they will destroy the sport.
    Yet in the meantimes there are millions to be made in business to business deals so the show will go on.

  19. Nascar should be penalized for Rule 12-1 actions detrimental to stock car racing.

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