It has become obvious that when it comes to punishing those who break the rules, NASCAR is as unforgiving and heavy-handed as a hanging judge in the Old West.
Guilty? Hey, it’s no quarter, no mercy. String ‘em up!
The most recent, and dramatic, example of that came this week when NASCAR nailed Joe Gibbs Racing and driver Matt Kenseth with an illegal engine part following their victory in Kansas.
What did they do? Apparently the team utilized an illegal connecting rod. The minimum weight for the rods is 525.0 grams and Gibbs used one that was just three grams lighter.
Doesn’t sound like much of an infraction, does it? But, historically, NASCAR has been very stern when it comes to engine chicanery – no matter how small.
Stern may not be a strong enough word for what it did to Gibbs.
Its crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was fined $200,000 and suspended for six weeks. He’s on probation for the rest of the year.
Team owner Gibbs was docked 50 championship points and lost bonus points from the Kansas victory.
And there’s more. Gibbs won’t get bonus points for his aggregated total after 26 races, for example.
But, to me, here’s the killer: His owner’s license is suspended for the next six races and he will not be eligible to receive championship car owner points during that time.
Kenseth was docked 50 driver points and his pole position at Kansas is not allowed eligibility for the 2014 Spring Unlimited.
His bonus points from the Kansas victory will not be added to his aggregate total after 26 races or even a “wild card” position.
These penalties are not the harshest NASCAR has delivered in its existence. I can think of at least one that was so severe it damaged a career. But they certainly are the fiercest in recent years.
Toyota Racing Development, which supplies Gibbs’ engines, has accepted it all.
The penalties are, by far, sterner than what NASCAR gave Penske Racing following the Texas race, when the team was discovered to have used unapproved rear end parts.
The fines were half as much and while there were equal suspensions and probations for team leaders, the loss of driver and owner points was far less severe, by half.
Penske’s appeal will be heard May 1.
Oh, and let’s not forget that after Texas, NASCAR also punished Martin Truex Jr.’s team. Its car failed to meet minimum front-end height during post-race inspection.
It fined crew chief Chad Johnston $25,000 and put him on probation until June 5. Truex Jr. was docked six driver points and Michael Waltrip six owner points.
Compared to the other penalties, that was pretty tame. But in my opinion there’s a reason for that.
Many things can affect a car’s front-end height during a race. Contact with another car or a severe bump on the track surface or a scrape with the wall are examples – and have happened several times.
NASCAR knows this but has never accepted any of it as an excuse. It still levies a punishment.
But, brother, it is far less severe that what is meted out to teams the sanctioning body thinks has deliberately bent the rules.
There was a time when NASCAR was a much more lenient judge than it is today.
Fines were mostly in the $5,000 range, although there were a few higher. Probation was virtually unheard of. Suspensions were almost non-existent.
I don’t think NASCAR thought it was being lenient at the time – which includes all of the 1970s into the ‘90s.
You have to remember that for decades, NASCAR teams did not enjoy huge sponsorships. There were far more underfunded teams in the sport than those that had any semblance of financial backing.
So a $5,000 fine was a hefty one in those days. If NASCAR enforced $100,000 penalties, it would wipe out the entire budget of almost all of its top teams – whose total sponsorship package was that amount or less, not millions. And it knew that.
Fines were relevant to economics. Simply put, things were far cheaper than they are now – and thus, so were the fines.
However, NASCAR could still be ultra-harsh. When, in 1978, low-funded driver D.K. Ulrich was discovered to have a nitrous oxide bottle in his car (which was revealed after a wreck at Darlington tore away his car’s sheet metal), the sanctioning body kicked him out of competition for the final 12 races of the year.
His career was effectively over.
For quite a while now fans have said cheating will never end in NASCAR until a winning team that has spurned the rules has its victory taken away.
In other words, if a team cheated to win then it should be stripped of the victory.
NASCAR has always been loathe to do this. It still is, as evidenced by the fact that it has allowed Kenseth to remain the victor in Kansas.
It’s reasoning has always been the same – no matter what you may think of it. It does not want fans to leave a race without knowing who was the winner.
Granted there have been times when the victor was in doubt and NASCAR had to take a day or two, or more, to determine whom he was.
But it was never due to a case of cheating.
NASCAR has taken a victory away from a driver. It declared Davey Allison the winner at Sonoma in 1991 after it determined that Ricky Rudd, who shoved Allison out of the way on the last lap to take the checkered flag, unnecessarily roughed him up.
But, again, understand – it was not a cheating issue.
Drivers who win and are later discovered to have bent the rules have always been allowed to retain their victories.
I’m not sure that is ever going to change.
But what has changed, dramatically, is how NASCAR punishes transgressors. It has never been sterner in its history.
In one man’s opinion, there’s a reason for that.
For years NASCAR never had much of a hand in creating the cars that competed on its top circuit. It let the manufacturers do that – and then merely approved or disapproved of what they did in an effort to keep competition equal.
It hasn’t done that in years. Instead it has molded and shaped its own cars and decreed that every team adopt them.
It’s been this way since the entry of the “Car of Tomorrow” several years ago. Sure, there was manufacturer participation but, essentially, the car was NASCAR’s creation.
And it wasn’t about to let teams tamper with it.
That’s when we saw harsher penalties, complete with probations and suspensions, come into existence. There were several of them.
Now we have the “Generation Six” car, again, another vehicle in which NASCAR has put a lot of effort and its own creativity.
The sanctioning body wants this car to become a flagship – one that performs admirably on the track, satisfies the teams and reclaims fan interest lost with the COT.
And, again, it’s not going to let teams tamper with it. It is not about to allow teams to push the envelope to gain any edge.
Put it this way: NASCAR isn’t going to permit any team to do it one better; to show it up.
Its harsh penalties say: “Don’t think about trying this again. And any team that does can expect the worst.”
Now, given this, will teams accept NASCAR’s evident superiority in all that goes into car preparation?
Can we really expect teams to stop experimenting, to stop testing the small gray areas or push the envelope?
Nope. Simply put, it ain’t gonna happen. We’ve already seen proof of that.
And we will see more before this season is over.