Ryan: Have the Darlington penalties redefined what ‘cheating’ entails in NASCAR?

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Disqualifying tainted winners, revamping laborious postrace inspections, shortening the news cycle for announcing penalties.

There is a sprawling list of hot-button issues spawned by the postrace Southern 500 penalties that shook NASCAR this week. But there is a fundamental question at the heart of the controversy.

Where does NASCAR want to be positioned philosophically on its time-honored traditions of chasing the limits of the rules?

Can a sanctioning body whose Hall of Fame opened seven years ago with a prominently displayed moonshine still (a wink and a nod to charter member Junior Johnson’s bootlegging days of outrunning the law through the North Carolina hills) eradicate “cheating” from a sport where skirting the law has been endemic since its inception?

And does “cheating,” an emotionally charged, pejorative term whose use in racing seems best restricted to such high-level tampering as jet fuel additives, soaked tires and oversized engines, now apply to something so rudimentary as seeking performance advantages?

For decades, NASCAR has celebrated the ingenuity of crew chiefs who incessantly burn the midnight oil hunting for extra speed. When Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet constantly was in the crosshairs of officials midway through the summer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick were among those who came to the defense of Larson’s team for working on the edge of legality.

Conventional wisdom in NASCAR held that’s permissible provided there is no overt intent to deceive by building blatantly illegal devices or parts (a stance taken this week by Joe Gibbs Racing in explaining how Denny Hamlin’s penalties could be out of its control). There are no designators for misdemeanors and felonies in NASCAR’s court of law, but the distinctions always have seemed obvious.

And if the exhaustive examinations currently conducted weekly at the NASCAR R&D Center retroactively were applied to the sanctioning body’s first five decades, how many victories would need to be reclassified and how much history would need to be rewritten?

Unquestionably, though, there has been a tipping point reached on satellite radio and social media recently in which a vocal majority now wants teams that push the boundaries to be treated in the same heavy-handed ways as those that flaunt them.

In the context of a playoff structure that has made victories more instrumental to contending for a championship, a winner’s car being deemed illegal understandably will raise the support for increasing the accompanying punishments to include taking away wins.

But this groundswell also seems more than that – the rejection of a foundational part of NASCAR, in which the goal always has been to build the fastest cars possible with an understanding that pursuit inevitably will land teams on the wrong side of legitimacy.

Is it throwing out the baby with the bathwater to insist upon teams always following the letter of the law when NASCAR’s appeal has been rooted in testing the spirit of the law?

Can stock-car racing really go straight, in other words, and retain its soul?

Here are the other questions facing NASCAR’s oversight of the Cup Series entering the 2017 playoffs:

When does stripping wins become an option? Changing the longstanding policy of leaving wins intact despite postrace penalties isn’t going to happen during the 2017 season, but NASCAR will need to reconsider it for 2018.

–Short of that, can anything else be done to encourage deterrence this season? Yes, which is why NASCAR told teams Friday that it will increase the penalties for rear suspension violations and now include three-race suspensions for car chiefs.

–Could postrace inspections be finished at track through the end of the season? This might happen naturally next season as NASCAR moves toward a new inspection process (more below) that hopefully will de-emphasize – and perhaps eliminate – the need for R&D Center inspections. But again, it would be unlikely to happen in 2017, and it wouldn’t result in a new winner, just a more expeditious result (which might be preferable).

What about points penalties in the cutoff race of the playoffs for an advancing driver? Currently, it’s a penalty with no impact because the points immediately are reset for the next round. With the addition of playoff points that carry through the first nine races, NASCAR might need to consider having penalties for title-eligible teams with an impact on playoff points.

–Was Darlington the start of a trend or just a final test of NASCAR’s willingness to drop the hammer? For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it was the latter.

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Lost amid the penalty aftermath of the Southern 500 was the longest green-flag run (102 laps) to end a 500-mile race at Darlington in more than 11 years, underscoring NASCAR’s increasing willingness to holster its yellow flags for debris.

Through 25 races, there have been 16 debris cautions – the lowest total at this point in the season since there were nine in the first 25 races of 2000. NASCAR has thrown only four yellows for debris in 10 races since a late debris caution in the June 18 race at Michigan International Speedway raised the hackles of many competitors.

Darlington’s high-wear surface delivered a classic example of the drama that can be produced by letting a race naturally unfold, which can be a more satisfying conclusion than bunching up the field for a series of late restarts. Though winner Denny Hamlin’s postrace penalty dampened the finish, NASCAR still deserves credit for steering away from a quick trigger on the yellow flag.

It bears watching through the playoffs, too, because crew chiefs are taking notice and accordingly adapting their strategies – as Mike Wheeler did Sunday in choosing to call Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota to the win by presuming there would be no caution. “I think a lot of the races go green now with the stages falling out the way they do and NASCAR letting things race out,” Wheeler said. “It’s great to see because it makes its own storylines.”

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NASCAR demonstrated a new inspection process to news media at its R&D Center this week that is intended to increase efficiency and potentially provide teams with more areas to work on the car.

The new system, which will be tested on non-playoff cars starting at Chicagoland Speedway through the final 10 races of the season, will use eight projectors and 17 cameras to scan cars, measuring anywhere from 200,000 to 700,000 points on a car with 3-D mapping to ensure a car conforms to specifications.

It’s intended to reduce the number of prerace inspection stations from five to three and reduce in half the amount of time required to pass through them (roughly more than 6 minutes when including a 90-second scan).

The system ideally could eliminate the need for prerace template grids and laser inspection stations, rendering the postrace measuring of bodies obsolete (though suspension elements similar to those that drew penalties this week still would be scrutinized).

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Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., was the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, explaining why Furniture Row Racing’s unorthodox approach has worked so well in producing the 2017 regular-season championship.

From being one of the only crew chiefs who wears a T-shirt instead of a firesuit or uniform (“It’s just me; I hate wearing a firesuit.”) to the team’s Denver, Colorado, headquarters, Pearn said the team’s nontraditional ways are keys to its success.

“We all have that rough around the edges feel, and as we’ve added people we’ve liked, it’s more people like that,” Pearn said. “We’re all a similar age and going through similar things in our lives together, and it just breeds a lot of closeness on the road-crew side. On the shop side, it’s a very laid-back atmosphere. … It definitely is a little bit different vibe than some of the bigger teams. It’s a group effort. There’s not a lot of hierarchy or chain of command. We ask all the time, ‘Who exactly is the boss here?’ ”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Matt Tifft fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Kentucky Speedway

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Matt Tifft ran 25 laps during Friday afternoon’s first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway.

But it was just one lap that mattered the most, as Tifft (180.427 mph) emerged from the 55-minute practice as the fastest in the 36 cars that took to the track.

Brian Scott was second (179.253 mph), followed by Ryan Preece (178.465), Brandon Jones (178.288), Justin Allgaier (178.271), Ben Kennedy (178.136), Elliott Sadler (177.573), Tyler Reddick (177.544), Spencer Gallagher Jr. (177.503) and Brennan Poole (177.381).

Interestingly enough, only four of the top-10 were playoff contenders. The seven-race Xfinity playoffs begin with Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

There will be one more practice session today from 6:30-7:25 p.m. ET.

Qualifying and the race are Saturday.

Click here for the full practice speed grid.

Christopher Bell fastest in final Truck practice at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell was fastest in the second and final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice session Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell covered the 1.058-mile flat track with a top speed of 132.877 mph.

Ben Rhodes was second (132.301 mph), followed by Todd Gilliland (132.213), Matt Crafton (132.122) and Noah Gragson (132.071).

Sixth through 10th were Johnny Sauter (132.016), Austin Cindric (131.865), Grant Enfinger (131.683), Ryan Truex (131.656) and Kaz Grala ((131.533).

Qualifying for the UNOH 175 takes place Saturday at 10 a.m. ET, while the green flag for the race drops three hours later at 1 p.m. ET. Both qualifying and the race will be televised on FoxSports1.

Click here for the full speed grid from the final Truck practice.

New Hampshire to host September spectacular next year

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Although the Cup series will not race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next September, the track still will have racing.

Officials from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR announced Friday that the track will host multiple series Sept. 21-22. The track will host:

  • A 250-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race, the longest race in series history.
  • A 125-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series race that will include series champions from the Mexico and Europe series.
  • A 100-lap NASCAR Pinty’s Series race in the first race for the Canadian series in the United States.

Practice and qualifying will take place on Sept. 21. Racing will be Sept. 22.

“We are creating a short-track weekend that I think fans from across the Northeast are going to be so excited about,” said David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the speedway.

McGrath estimates the track will attract 15,000 – 20,000 fans for the inaugural event.

“We will start there and certainly hope to grow there,” McGrath said. “We certainly have the space to do it.”

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, has high hopes for this event.

“Anytime we enter into a conversation about a special event like this, it’s done thinking about the long term and building,” Cassidy said. “I would like to look at this as certainly a building block on a big-time weekend for racing.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ready to move past Chicagoland woes

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was blunt as he looked back at last weekend’s 25th-place finish in the opening playoff race.

“It’s the worst playoff race I’ve ever had,’’ he said before quickly adding, “actually, it was the only playoff race I ever had.’’

A week after he hit the wall, had a commitment line violation and sped on pit road to finish last among the 16 playoff drivers, Stenhouse heads to a New Hampshire Motor Speedway that has been unkind to him. His average finish of 20.44 at this track is the worst among the playoff contenders.

It’s easy to peg Stenhouse, whose best finish at New Hampshire is ninth, as one of the four drivers who won’t advance to the second round after next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway.

Stenhouse says don’t end his title hopes just yet.

“I think there are tracks you look at where you feel like, ‘Hey, we don’t run well there,’ ‘’ Stenhouse said Friday. “There are tracks you look at and average finishes aren’t as good as what you really ran, and I think New Hampshire is one of those race tracks for us.

“I can count two or three times where we’ve been in the top 10 and we come down on our last pit stop and we’ve had freak accidents on pit road that we end up restarting tail end. I think that skews a little bit on the finishes, so I think we’ve got confidence that we can run with those cars that we’re chasing.’’

He better or his playoff experience will be brief. He enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) four points out of the cutoff spot.

“We keep our head up because we’re only four points out, so I think that’s the key message around the shop this week,’’ Stenhouse said. “We had, by far, the worst race we could have ever thought of having and we’re still close. I think that’s the key.”

For him to turn in a good run — and a good finish Sunday — Stenhouse said the key will be where he starts and how strong he is on restarts.

“We’ve always been really good on the long runs and you get quite a few long runs here,’’ said Stenhouse, who was 24th on the speed chart after Friday’s practice. “That seems to be our strong suit. Restarts seem to be some of the areas that we need to get better at. I was on the plane ride up today just looking at our notes from this last race and that was it. 

“We were strong on the long runs, needed to get our restarts better, and need to qualify better. These first two stages you can really run without pitting, so that first stage it’s going to be important to qualify well and make sure we put ourselves in a position to maybe get some stage points if it does go green, and our car is good on the long runs.’’

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