Chicagoland Speedway

Here’s why NASCAR did not penalize drivers for pitting partly outside pit box

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte explained why Jimmie Johnson was not penalized when his pit crew tightened a lug nut while he was outside his pit box last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson’s case was at least the third instance — and second involving Johnson — in the playoffs of such a situation. In all cases, NASCAR did not penalize the team.

The instances Letarte detailed were Denny Hamlin at Chicagoland in the playoff opener, Johnson at New Hampshire and Johnson at Charlotte.

MORE: NASCAR official explains why Jimmie Johnson’s team not penalized for pit stop

MORE: Jimmie Johnson: NASCAR said no penalty for servicing car outside pit box at end of stop

NASCAR has remained consistent on the calls, saying that because the cars were attempting to return to their pit box after leaving to fix a safety issue.

Johnson’s incident at Charlotte seems to have caused the most concern among fans, but again, NASCAR ruled the No. 48 team did nothing wrong by having Johnson back up, even though his front end was over the pit box line – as long as it was for tightening a loose lug nut or lug nuts.

See the video above to further illustrate NASCAR’s consistency in applying the lug nut/safety rule exception.

Long: Time for NASCAR to regulate victory burnouts? What’s the fun in that?

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — Strip away the debate, peel away the nuances and look not at NASCAR but yourself.

Can you enjoy watching someone smoke the tires after winning a race, or must you see tires blow, thus damage the car and possibly hinder officials in inspecting the vehicle afterward?

Denny Hamlin knows how many of you will vote. He’s seen your reaction when he’s done burnouts down the frontstretch like he did in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — site of Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN). He blew a left rear tire in that celebration.

“The moment that the tires pop … that’s the moment the fans get excited,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports after qualifying Friday.

Is that what it comes down to for you? After half a day at the track and three hours of racing, one of the key moments of your trip is seeing someone blow a tire in their victory burnout?

If it’s that important to see those tires blow, then are you OK that it could allow a car to skate the rules?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says NASCAR should regulate those celebrations because they’re as nefarious as they are exhilarating.

“I’ve been kind of waiting all this time for NASCAR to say, “Look we’d just rather you guys not blow the tires out,’ ‘’ Earnhardt said Friday. “They talk about not being the fun police. Being the fun police is not on the radar of their damn problems. I don’t think they need to worry about it. That’s a cop-out in my opinion.’’

Why?

“I just feel like that they should step up,’’ Earnhardt said. “They’re the governing body. It’s obvious (blowing tires) is done intentionally.’’

Earnhardt said that the penalty to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott and Elliott’s team for modifying components to affect aerodynamic properties was too severe compared to drivers who are not penalized for damaging their cars in victory celebrations.

“(Elliott’s team) is going to get a suspended crew chief and car chief for this tape mess and the winner of the race (Martin Truex Jr.) was riding into victory lane with a damn rear tore all to hell,’’ Earnhardt said of last weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway “Can’t even tech it. I love Martin. It ain’t about Martin. Every guy out there has done it.’’

Truex says he did nothing wrong when he blew a rear tire in his celebration at Chicagoland. He was overjoyed after coming back from a speeding penalty and having to pit a second time under caution for loose lug nuts to win. So, yes he had a robust celebration.

“It was definitely not something that was on purpose or somebody told me to do it,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It was just caught up in the moment. The burnout was pretty nice. Maybe it went on a little longer than it should have. In that case, there’s no rules against it. Nobody said you can’t do it. If there was obviously a rule against it, then we would probably not do it anymore.

“People are just reaching for unicorns at this point and trying to figure out why we’re so fast. They can say what they want. We’ve not had any inspection issues (after a race). We’ve been to the R&D Center probably more than everybody this year.’’

Section 8.5.2.1.c of the Cup Rule Book allows burnouts, stating: “The first place vehicle may engage in appropriate celebratory activity (such as a victory lap, burn-out(s) or donuts) prior to reporting to victory lane.’’

The key word in that rule is “appropriate.”

This isn’t the first time victory celebrations have been debated. It has become as regular as shorter days and birds flying south in autumn.

Excessive victory celebrations was a topic during the playoffs in Oct. 2015 after Kevin Harvick’s car appeared to hit the inside wall while he did a donut after winning at Dover. His car passed inspection after the race.

Last year, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, hinted on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials could address victory celebrations. His comments came two days after Hamlin had to walk to victory lane at Watkins Glen after his celebration. Hamlin’s car passed inspection.

“We hear the same thing from them all the time,’’ Hamlin said, recalling the last time NASCAR commented publicly on the issue. “Until they really do something, people are going to do the same things.’’

Still, shouldn’t there be a line on what is allowed and what isn’t? Why give drivers the chance to damage their car before going through inspection after the race?

NASCAR has docked teams practice time for swerving after a race to ensure they make it through inspection. Those weren’t winning cars. So, should the benefit of winning be that as long as the driver gives fans one last thrill show, they’re given more leeway in possibly damaging or resetting their car?

If NASCAR penalizes teams for celebrations, it likely will take away some of the emotion the sport wants to display, particularly at the end of the race. Few want to see a winner treat a victory nonchalantly. Such achievements are difficult and are worth reveling in.

“The hard part of judging that is that sometimes, when it’s a big enough win and you’re celebrating the heck out of it, it’s hard to make that call between a celebration and trying to get through tech after the race,’’ Austin Dillon told NBC Sports.

Dillon, who scored his first Cup win this year, isn’t sure he likes the idea of NASCAR constraining a celebration.

“I’ve been really excited and blew the tires off it when I won my first couple of races,’’ he said. “When you win more than that, the issue with me is I want to take that clean car and race it again.

“Blowing the wheel tubs out of it, I’m probably going to do it if everybody else is doing it, if it helps getting through tech. The bad part about it is it kind of looks bad on the money side of things when you’re tearing cars up and they’re crying we don’t have any money.’’

By not doing anything, is NASCAR inhibiting its ability to properly inspect cars afterward, assuring a level playing field among competitors?

It’s not like ‘Oh, my bad, blew my tire.’ I mean it’s deliberate,’’ Earnhardt said. “So, it tells me there’s some purpose behind it. It just upset me with what happened to Chase and how they sort of got zeroed-in on when all this is sort of going on right under everybody’s nose. It doesn’t make sense.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ready to move past Chicagoland woes

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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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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Cup playoff contenders docked practice time

Cup playoff contenders docked practice time
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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Playoff contenders Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray will each miss 30 minutes of practice in Saturday’s final session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for inspection issues last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Both are being docked practice time because each car failed inspection before the race three times at Chicagoland.

Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones each will miss 15 minutes of the 50-minute final practice session Saturday because their cars failed inspection twice before last weekend’s race at Chicagoland.

Final Cup practice will be from 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

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Ryan: Did self-policing in NASCAR reach a new level of social media shaming after Chicagoland?

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When NASCAR announced a private testing ban three years ago, it also disclosed an intriguing twist in how it would monitor roughly 4 million square miles.

Posting 24-hour sentries at every short track in America wasn’t an option, of course. But the 24-hour omniscience of social media?

A reality of 21st century community policing in any neighborhood, especially NASCAR’s.

“The teams are not too shy about telling on one another,” chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said at the time. “So we know it won’t be just NASCAR (enforcing the policy). We have a lot of people out there with social media.”

That was driven home by the 2017 Cup Series playoffs’ first major penalty, which was the subject of a social media firestorm long before Chase Elliott lost 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

NASCAR officials certainly were cognizant of the potential wrongdoing to Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet well before the photos and video went viral in various corners of the Internet that purported to show aerodynamic modifications Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway that were deemed the reason for the punishment.

The sanctioning body has access to cameras around the track as well as the PRO system of about 50 high-definition cameras that provide nonstop observation of every pit stall. It certainly is plausible that officials were aware Elliott’s team might have been on the wrong side of the rulebook before the race even was over.

But the same knowledge also likely was available to teams, which work with manufacturers that employ photographers who take thousands of photos of cars on track during every race weekend. There are some moral stipulations that are followed for garage photos (as noted in this excellent USA TODAY Sports feature from 2015 by Mike Hembree), but the amount of on-track images taken are staggering. To ensure swift transmissions of massive data files to their home bases (and teams), manufacturers in NASCAR have benefited in recent years from tracks upgrading high-speed connectivity in every garage.

Was access to those vast troves of evidence put to use in attempting to try Elliott’s team in the court of public opinion before any penalty were announced, or even decided?

That’s what made this controversy feel different – and also harken back to how NASCAR implemented the testing ban. Just as it predicted teams would help with enforcement, NASCAR received photos of Elliott’s car from rival Cup teams. So did many in the news media.

It is natural to ponder whether the ensuing widespread distribution might have hastened NASCAR’s reaction – usually, penalties are announced after the offending teams are consulted and a fair amount of deliberation takes place.

In this instance, anyone with a Twitter account and following the right people – or any regular visitor to NASCAR Reddit – knew there was extra scrutiny on the No. 24, which was one of three cars taken to the R&D Center after the Chicagoland Speedway race.

If it was a coordinated and deliberate campaign by rival teams to disseminate the visual evidence of an infraction, it certainly seemed successful — regardless of whether the worldwide whisper campaign led to NASCAR uncovering the No. 24’s penalty.

“Self policing” in NASCAR – at least in a public setting — traditionally has fallen into the “Boys, Have at It” realm of frontier justice administered via bumper and fender by drivers who feel aggrieved.

This felt as if it were delivered via point and click by an angry army of engineers eager to drop a dime on a competitor – and perhaps deliver a warning about a new era in the fishbowl existence of these modern times.

Don’t bend that spoiler. Somebody always is watching — and sharing on social media.

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Much of the discussion around Elliott’s car centered on whether tape was applied to the spoiler. It might have seemed a relatively minor modification, but NASCAR has been warning teams for more than a year that it would punish teams for even miniscule adjustments.

In the June 7, 2016 race at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski’s team was penalized for improper body modifications, and Cup series director Richard Buck warned teams later that season at the Kentucky Speedway prerace drivers meeting and again before the Kansas Speedway race in last year’s playoffs.

Buck specifically referred to “deliberately adding tape trips,” which create more downforce by altering airflow with strategically placed tiny pieces of tape. Teams also are known to slice cars’ wraps (particularly around the wheel well area) to create more downforce.

The penalty for illegal body modifications is a pit stop for repairs under yellow (which applied in Keselowski’s case) and restarting from the rear and a drive-through penalty under green.

By virtue of a second-place finish at Chicagoland, Elliott’s car received further scrutiny in a postrace teardown at the R&D Center (after which NASCAR announced the penalty). It’s worth considering, though, if a similar situation occurred in the next nine playoff races, would NASCAR consider bringing the car to the pits based off visual evidence (and possibly punishing a team with a loss of positions even if no infraction were found)?

Or might NASCAR consider randomly inspecting cars in the impound area where officials check for five secure lug nuts before team members are allowed near the vehicles?

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It isn’t unusual for NASCAR to seize tires for inspection during a race, but Sunday was unusual because of the appearance of a blue tent that housed the dunk tank used to check them.

The tent has been in use this season to establish some consistency in its at-track processes. Because its accommodations vary from each facility (some tracks have dedicated buildings for tire suppliers; others don’t), Goodyear began erecting the tent at the back of the garage near its hauler and tire staging area so that it could check for punctures and leaks more efficiently.

Of course, it also is used by NASCAR during races for random checks – O’Donnell noted on Twitter that it has happened five times in Cup this season.

That it happened to come to light during the 2017 playoff opener and involving the race’s two fastest cars (whose speed had drawn a heavy degree of scrutiny already during the weekend, whether fair or not) made it a major storyline during the race.

NASCAR’s stock answer to questions about Sunday’s tire inspection was “well, we always have done it this way.” Again, that is true, but it falls short of meeting the self-proclaimed higher standards of transparency that officials are striving to reach, and it also implies there was a lack of newsworthiness, which is false.

This was the first time a random tire inspection was witnessed in a conspicuous-looking tent on national TV, and the intimation is that the teams involved might have done something wrong.

A better answer from NASCAR would have been: “With the intense pressure of the playoffs beginning, we reserve the right to hold every team to the highest standard of the rules to ensure fairness. We will be doing random inspections over these 10 races because a level playing field is at a premium, and we want to guarantee that to the competitors. The tires from the 18 and 78 checked out OK.”

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There has been much debate about whether NASCAR needs to be in the business of getting embroiled in midweek penalty discussions, but somehow the debate over the illegal modifications made by Elliott’s team didn’t feel in the same vein as the taint that hung over Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory.

Maybe it was because it didn’t involve a winning car, but Elliott’s penalty also seemed to say more about the heightened urgency of the playoffs. Hendrick Motorsports has lacked speed during the second half of the regular season. In the cat-and-mouse game of testing the limits allowed by officials, why shouldn’t it be worth the risk to a team desperately in search of a breakthrough?

Similarly, the discussion about NASCAR briefly confiscating the tires of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch also didn’t detract from the race; it blended into the main storyline of the weekend, i.e. the recent dominance of Toyotas (and the grumbling it caused by Brad Keselowski).

NASCAR naturally wants to keep the focus on tight battles for position, but in a race decided by a 7.1-second margin of victory, the hunt for compelling angles can lead elsewhere. In both the instances of tires and tape that mysteriously might have been applied to the spoiler, it made for healthy discussions.

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After the Chicagoland win, Truex seems even more of a lock to reach the championship finale, but Kyle Larson slipped in another reminder that the tables might turn at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Obviously, (Truex) is really good,” Larson told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast after finishing fifth Sunday. “He could probably win nine out of 10, but if we get to Homestead, we’ll have a shot.”

Larson, who said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last week that he thinks Truex “definitely” will be in the championship round, considers Miami his favorite track and with good reason. The 1.5-mile progressively banked oval favors drivers such as Larson who prefer the high lane. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led a race-high 132 of 268 laps in a runner-up finish to champion Jimmie Johnson last season.

“I’m not surprised that Larson said that,” Truex said with a chuckle when told of Larson’s comment by NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after his win. “He’s pretty good at Homestead, but we made some big gains there last year. That used to be one of my best racetracks. I have a feeling if we can get there, it’s going to be a hell of a battle.”

Crew chief Cole Pearn also laughed when told of what Larson said.

“I agree; I think (Larson) is the one to beat when it comes to Homestead,” Pearn told NBC Sports. “I think looking at the last couple of years, they’ve been so, so good there. So it’s definitely our weak point that we have to figure out. We’re fortunate to have a two-day test coming up in October that we can hopefully sort out some of the things that ail us there. I think if we play our cards right, we’ll have a shot at it, and that’s really our only option.

“With this one-race championship deal, you’ve got to be good at Homestead. So it’s a weak spot for us that we got to be good at when it comes time.”

Furniture Row Racing skipped the test at Miami last year, raising some eyebrows around the garage, but Truex is enthused about next month’s session. “It definitely will be big,” he said. “We’ll be there. We know what to focus on. I think we have a good game plan going on, but Homestead is a hard place to test. It’s one of those tracks that on race weekend, it’s always a lot different. You have to stay open-minded. You can’t just learn a bunch at the test, go to the track and say this is what we’re going to do no matter what because it could bite you.”

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On the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, analyst Steve Letarte said the preponderance of visual evidence was what surprised him the most about the Elliott penalty.

“That’s why I’m really so shocked by this,” Letarte said. “What a brazen move. There was no secret there were going to be photos of this car on the racetrack. That shocked me about it.”

The former crew chief also said it was a “moral struggle” watching it unfold on social media.

“I’m not sure I like the strategy or goal of whoever it was to put those pictures out there unless they’re going to cover all 40 cars the same way with some sort of moral requirement of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be Big Brother to everyone in the field,’ ” he said. “That’s the bigger problem I have with this than anything. I struggle with this starting on a social site. I don’t want there to be a million NASCAR officials out there.”

During the podcast, Letarte also discussed Kasey Kahne‘s crew chief change and the state of Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch’s pit crew swap, the strength of Toyota Racing Development and whether there was deeper motive behind Keselowski’s words last week.

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.

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