By Aaron Bearden, NASCAR Contributor
It took only one instance of a race-winner suffering an “encumbered” finish for this writer to reach a significant conclusion regarding the ruling: it, or at the minimum the name it’s been given, needs altered.
One thing’s been confirmed with relative consistency regarding NASCAR’s latest buzzword – it doesn’t seem a good fit.
Don’t believe me? Look no further than NASCAR’s most popular (and soon to be retired) driver.
Never used the word “encumbered” to describe anything. Don’t plan on ever using it. Can we all agree it’s a terrible choice of word here? https://t.co/EmxWVxbhRt
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 4, 2017
The concept of “encumbered” finishes, NASCAR’s latest invention, was created to solidify post-race inspection rulings after a flaw in the system was discovered when race-winner Martin Truex, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson both failed inspection at Chicagoland Speedway in last fall’s Chase opener.
The basics of the rules were this: NASCAR was electing to offer teams a wider range to pass multiple metrics – measurements, laser inspection, etc. – in post-race inspection. As a result, those that did fail were issued a much stiffer penalty for their negligence to the rules.
In many ways, the move has been a step in the right direction. While there were worries that teams would push the limits right up to the edge, the frequency of penalties related to laser inspections and other measurements seem to have gone down, replaced mostly by fines and suspensions for missing lug nuts.
Most importantly, the updates to encumbered finishes for 2017 ramped up the aggression to include taking away any automatic playoff berths and newly-implemented playoff points earned in an encumbered victory.
NASCAR deserves applause for these moves. In what was just recently regarded a gray area, the post-race inspection processes become much more black-and-white as a result of the changes. Every team knows how much wiggle room they have and, more importantly, they know the severity of the repercussions should they make a mistake.
In that sense, encumbered finishes are a significant step in the right direction. However, the post-race inspection process still requires a few additional steps to truly serve the purpose for which it exists.
1) A Name Change
The term “encumber”, most prevalently used in literature around the year 1840, means “to impede or hamper the function or activity of” per the Merriam-Webster. While that definition may loosely apply to what an encumbered finish does for a race in NASCAR, there are a litany of terms that most would deem more appropriate.
In this humble writer’s opinion, the proper term to use is “ineligible.” Why? Because that’s precisely what the result is for whomever endures it.
Win a race? NASCAR let’s you keep the victory, but rules it ineligible to gain playoff points or secure a playoff bid.
It really could be that simple. And while it’s possible to garner an “encumbered” finish without a victory, and therefore get the points penalty that follows (in Logano’s case it was 25 markers), the general principle of the penalty is that it keeps teams from cheating to earn the benefits of a trip to victory lane. In that sense, “ineligible” would still suffice.
NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan came another term – tainted.
“Tainted” is right word.
Euphemisms are bad. Call it what it is, even if it casts aspersions a team views as unfair. NASCAR should own it. https://t.co/0AC3gi6A0J
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) May 4, 2017
Regardless of your preference, there are multiple terms that better fit the occasion of a major post-race inspection failure than a term that reached peak popularity nearly two centuries ago.
2) Embrace the DQ
In the olden days, when news of a driver being disqualified from an event wouldn’t likely reach fans leaving the track until next following day, the idea that the driver who takes the checkered flag should always be declared the race winner made sense, regardless of how fair it may be.
However, in the modern era – a time when many fans are watching from home, and even those at the track can have updates quickly sent to them via their cellular plans – the list of excuses for not disqualifying drivers and teams is growing ever-smaller and impractical.
Regardless of the level of guilt, those that are caught with race cars deemed illegal don’t deserve to enjoy the spoils of victory. Allowing them to do so undermines the integrity of both the race and the sport as a whole.
This is especially true under the current points format in NASCAR’s three national series, where stage-and-race wins are crucial to a championship chase.
Consider this – as can be seen in Playoff Points – Brad Keselowski took over the top spot in playoff points with 11 points to date courtesy of his Stage 2 win in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400. However, if Logano’s win were to be stripped from him, Keselowski would inherit the perks of the victory due to his runner-up result.
The impact of that change would be huge, with the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion earning an additional five points for this fall’s playoffs. That may not sound like much, but as evidenced by the championship in recent years, a handful of points can be the difference between being in contention at Homestead-Miami Speedway and being eliminated in the Round of 8.
This week’s example of the effects of this proposed change include a driver who’s already won this year, and therefore isn’t even the most drastic. Imagine if someone like Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were to finish second in this circumstance. That disqualification could be the difference in them even making the postseason.
As for the offending party, there are options in regards to choosing just how much to penalize teams based on the level of their transgressions. The sanctioning body could look to the open wheel and sports car ranks for guidance and establish time or position penalties, while leaving the possibility of a disqualification open for those offenders grossly negligent of the rules.
Regardless of the chosen repercussion, under the modern points system, cheating teams shouldn’t be allowed to be declared a race’s official victor at the expense of their legal counterparts. It’s a move that can have a drastic effect on the season, particularly to those who are accosted precious playoff points.
3) Speed Up Inspection
NASCAR’s already made steps in this direction, but the sanctioning body’s inspection process still has a great distance to cover before it can truly match up to the sport it rules.
The sport has already attempted to make strides in this area, policing penalties as early as they can in the form of practice penalties and loss of pit selection, but in many regards the overall process is still quite slow.
Speeding up the inspection process is difficult. Each car has dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of little parts and pieces that can be tinkered illegally to allow for extra speed or grip.
Breaking down and analyzing them takes time, and any attempts to cut corners and save time could lead to something crucial being missed.
Still, there has to be a better balance than the current status quo. Many infractions are caught in post-race inspection on Sunday, but any other infractions and all penalties aren’t officially revealed until two days later at the earliest.
Media and fans weren’t aware of Logano’s failure and subsequent penalities until Thursday, four days after the Team Penske shoe maneuvered his No. 22 Ford to victory lane at Richmond.
By that point, the mindset for all involved has already shifted on to the next event. Talladega is fresh on the minds of each team, with many already en-route to the track.
Maybe it can’t be helped, but that just seems to be too long of a wait in the modern climate for something that can have such a grand effect on a team’s weekend.
Penalty storylines shouldn’t linger on until the beginning of the following weekend. After all, I’ve yet to talk to a single fan who said they were brought into the sport by the LIS.
There you have it – three fixes ranging from simple to complex that can help smooth out the current post-race inspection and penalty procedures.
Sure, there are more issues with the process that aren’t addressed here, such as the insanely long appeals process (looking at you, Team Penske No. 2 team).
There will always be problems to address. The sport, much like the people involved with it, is not and never will be perfect.
NASCAR made significant steps in the right direction with the inspection changes implemented over the past eight months.
Now they, and we, need to review things again and continue to strive to be better.
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