By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
“This one is on us.”
It’s rare to hear that level of candor from the sanctioning body of any sport, but those were the exact words to come from Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, during a Wednesday teleconference announcing a change to the sanctioning body’s penalty system for post-race laser inspection system (LIS) failures.
The old rules — and I say “old” loosely, as they were just implemented last week — provided a gray area with P2 and P3 level penalties for teams that failed LIS with minor infractions, while also implementing a heftier P4 penalties for teams that were found to be egregiously off of the planned standards.
The P4 penalty, ruled an “encumbered finish”, would warrant NASCAR the opportunity to strip teams of win benefits, i.e. advancement in the Chase, while also allowing for penalties of 35 points, $65,000, and the opportunity to suspend the guilty team’s crew chief for three weeks.
By comparison, the minor rules allowed teams to keep their finishing benefits, such as a win and Chase advancement, while allowing for minor penalties including a 10-point deduction in the standings.
The above rules, while fair to competitors in the sense that they were the same for everyone and offered each team the temptation to cheat just a little bit, presented a confusing message to fans in the modern era of transparency as a winning driver could theoretically fail post-race inspection and still advance through the Chase, while a driver who failed tech with the same issue and finished fifth received the same penalty and none of the award.
As happens with surprising consistency in NASCAR (see: Talladega 2015), the worst-case scenario of the rule change came to light immediately in the first race with the changes, as Martin Truex, Jr., won the race with a car that failed post-race inspection with minor infractions while Jimmie Johnson finished 12th with a similarly illegal car.
Under the current rules, both drivers were in line for minor penalties — NASCAR announced that they would’ve been P2 penalties — but Truex would’ve been no worse off as a result of his win, while Johnson would’ve dropped into a three-way tie for 12th place in the standings with two races remaining in the Round of 16 to try to improve his position.
To some the above result seemed fair, if flawed. The theoretical idea was that teams could push the limit if they’d like, but they’d best not go too far, and the attempt wouldn’t prove to be worth the effort if they couldn’t capitalize with a win.
However, as proven this week, the concept was doomed to fail from the beginning. Fans perceived Truex’s win as cheating and getting away with it in the days following the Chase opener at Chicagoland, and with Furniture Row Racing no worse for wear there was a possibility that the win could incentivize other teams to attempt the same feat.
NASCAR needed to act quickly, lest they allow “LIS” and “encumbered” to become the buzz words of the entire Chase.
Just three days after Chicagoland, they did just that, removing the minor penalties while also requiring every Chase team to go through inspection.
Gone are the minor P2 and P3-level penalties. Teams will no longer be docked for minor infractions. Instead, they’ll be allowed to roll through post-race inspection without issue until their cars are ruled to be egregiously over or under tolerance, then the finish will be ruled encumbered and the guilty team will be punishable for a P4 penalty.
Gone are the minor infractions and gray area that led to a cumbersome post-race penalty report at Chicagoland. In their place is a pass or fail, black or white alternative. Finishes are either encumbered or fine, with no penalty coming for teams that lie within the range that would formerly have qualified for a P2 or P3 penalty.
The timing of the announcement is admittedly poor. NASCAR’s decision to make this change after Chicagoland shows that they perhaps didn’t do their due diligence in researching the penalties implemented before to avoid these sort of ill-advised midweek changes.
To their credit, though, the organization did own up to their failure in Wednesday’s teleconference.
“We missed that.” Miller said. “It’s something that’s not fair, it’s hard to understand and we’re doing our best to rectify that.”
Still, the sanctioning body needs to be commended for having the courage to make swift changes in the interest of fairness and understanding for the sport’s fans.
Will teams still force the issue? Sure. I’d be shocked if every team in the garage isn’t researching ways to alter their cars to sit closer the the measurements necessary for an encumbered finish. However, now the penalty structure works fairly for all teams, even the one that drives into victory lane.
So yes, teams can try to push the limits. But if they go too far, their season’s likely over.
“We don’t want to be talking about post-race penalties,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “Our goal is to never penalize anybody and we want to be talking about the action on the track. This is hopefully enough of a deterrent to not have teams go there.”
For a brief time, it appeared that post-race LIS was going to become the “lug nut” of the Chase. Thanks to NASCAR, that won’t be the case. Now we can all focus on the on-track product instead of worrying about post-race penalties.