When NASCAR announced that teams who failed postrace inspection would face disqualification, forfeiting even a race win, it was well-received among race fans. Many have called for years for stiffer penalties for bending the rules, and rightfully so. Fans deserve to know that the winner of a race did so in a legal car. So, race fans applauded NASCAR when they announced the move earlier this year.
Until it actually happened.
After Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ross Chastain, a driver who has been the main character in a couple of feel-good stories over the last year or two, earning a top Xfinity Series ride after scoring some impressive finishes in very underfunded cars only to see it slip away when financial troubles caused sponsorship to dry up at the 11th hour and then score a storybook win for an underfunded Truck team but for naught when it comes to the playoffs because he wasn’t running the series for points. When Chastain changed to race for a Truck title, knowing he’d have to win again for Niece Motorsports, it was easy to root for him after everything.
Chastain made it look easy, winning at Iowa Speedway, needing only to gain enough points to break into the top 20 in driver standings to wrap up the playoff spot and unlikely title bid. That lasted until the truck failed postrace height measurements—and true to its word, NASCAR stripped the win from Chastain, along with all the points that went with it.
And suddenly fans were not so happy with the rule after all.
One thing to understand here: teams failing postrace inspection are given the benefit of the doubt. Parts are allowed to cool, teams can fill the fuel cell and inflate the tires to where they would have been during the race, and then NASCAR measures again. Throwing away race wins isn’t something NASCAR takes lightly. But if the race vehicles still can’t pass tech, there has to be a penalty. NASCAR handed out the one on Sunday that they said they would since day one.
So why so unhappy? Perhaps it was because fans figured that the first driver caught would be one driving for a big team, someone who won too much or bent the rules in the past or someone they just didn’t like. Someone like Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson. Not one of the good guys.
Except the good guys have to play be the same rules. NASCAR did the right thing, the thing fans had been asking them to do. They knew what a story it would make if Chastain became a contender despite his late entry, but they were (gasp) consistent with the rule they said they’d follow. There’s nothing to criticize here.
And yes, NASCAR does need to inspect cars after races. Yes, they did pass prerace inspection. But if there was no postrace, how long would it be until teams found ways to change the cars during the race in such a way that they would quickly be outside the rules. In other words, they’d cheat, because it would be a free-for-all. Suggesting otherwise is condoning teams playing outside the rules.
But here’s the thing. If everyone wants NASCAR to be consistent with the rules, then everyone needs to be consistent with what they want.
It’s not just about postrace inspection, either. There is more at stake, and to an extent, fans can control some of it. Many fans have asked for changes to the schedule, to include more exciting tracks. But just like asking NASCAR to take wins away, fans have to support changes when they happen.
That means showing up.
More worrisome than the disqualification Sunday was the crowd. Iowa packed the stands for Truck and Xfinity races for several years, with fans calling for a Cup race.
But in order for tracks to host races, people have to go to them. It’s simple: while NASCAR’s revenue comes largely from its broadcast deals, the tracks’ revenue comes from fans buying tickets, concessions, and souvenirs. If they don’t make money, they aren’t going to petition NASCAR for races.
Fans said they wanted NASCAR to return to Rockingham Speedway… and NASCAR did. The problem was that while NASCAR went back, the fans—who had begged and pleaded for the race—didn’t. The first Truck Series race was fairly well-attended, but not packed. The second was not. NASCAR and the track didn’t host a third.
As the more-short-tracks mantra gains traction, there are a lot of empty seats at Bristol and Martinsville. Why should NASCAR take a chance on other tracks if the best tracks they have aren’t filling up. Not everyone can afford to travel to a race, especially one that requires an overnight stay. But anyone calling for short tracks with the means to go to one, especially one that’s nearby, needs to be there, showing NASCAR that people are willing to back up their words.
NASCAR is at a crossroads, and fans have been seeking a lot of changes to repair the sport they love. But for NASCAR to make those changes, they have to have reason to believe the fans will support them. Not just when it’s a driver they like or dislike. Not just to have a track on the circuit. Not just anything. If fans ask for something and get it, that’s just the beginning.
The same goes for other changes, including to the cars. It’s OK to be disappointed when the racing isn’t what you hoped. It’s OK to hope for more changes. The flip side of that, though, is acknowledging what is working and looking for ways to expand on that. Criticism has to be constructive in order to have a lasting impact.
NASCAR has shown that they are willing to make changes that fans have asked for. For that to work, the fans have to be willing to support those changes, even if they aren’t perfect, even if it means sometimes the outcome won’t be as they hoped. It won’t ever be perfect (and it never has been) but it can get better — if it’s a two-way street.