Ryan: An unfamiliar brand of NASCAR justice emerges from laser inspections

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Justice was served Wednesday by NASCAR but absent its usual iron-fisted gavel.

No evisceration of a race team that ran afoul of its myriad rules. No banishment of a driver who dared to cross the line.

This was quite the antithesis of the rough-hewn, unforgiving jurisprudence administered for years from smoky conference rooms in Daytona Beach.

This was the rare instance in which things were made right by relaxing the regulations – to a certain degree.

In announcing the decision to eliminate P2 and P3 penalties for postrace laser inspection system violations – essentially expanding the razor-tight tolerances and granting a reprieve to the teams of Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson for failing the LIS at Chicagoland Speedway — NASCAR exhibited equal measures of common sense, culpability and grace.

This wasn’t a decision you could imagine coming from the desk of the endearingly gruff Bill France Jr. or his father, who once threatened using a pistol to enforce his rule of law.

But those stock-car czars also ruled a simpler era in which lasers spitting out precision measurements from a rear suspension didn’t complicate matters as confusingly as lately on the Sprint Cup circuit.

NASCAR officials long have maintained they were respecting the wishes of teams that requested lasers be employed this season to measure cars at the track for the first time.

If anyone could have foreseen the frequent mess caused by the technology, those opinions might have been different.

Crew chiefs and drivers privately have howled about the reliability of the lasers in delivering consistently accurate readings. Damage sustained during races apparently was causing LIS failures but wasn’t acknowledged by NASCAR as a valid reason for avoiding punishment.

A well-intentioned attempt at establishing boundaries for LIS failures last week instead muddied the waters when a winning car fell outside the bounds of being legal but still within the margin of the victory counting toward qualifying for or advancing in the Chase.

The NASCAR rulebook already is hard enough to comprehend without differentiating between misdemeanors and felonies.

There was a clear need to address the situation in a bold and forceful way – effectively admitting blame by moving the goal posts on rulebreaking — that also would leave NASCAR open to criticism.

Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell (“We believed it was fair, and we realized that it wasn’t”) and Vice President of Competition Scott Miller (“This is on us. We missed it”) did their best to fall on their swords Wednesday.

Yet there remains an enormous lingering question.

How could a scenario be unanticipated in which a winning car would advance without penalty vs. a car that was docked points for the same violation?

That’s the essence of the entire playoff structure: A victory can absolve a host of sins by making points immaterial. And on its face, the Chase geometrically is designed for penalties to be more punishing – a 10-point penalty for a P2 can be made up over 26 races in the regular season, vs. the unforgiving severity of a three-race round.

Wednesday’s decision also will ring hollow in some quarters, particularly by those already tainted by penalties.

Matt Kenseth faced questions Wednesday about his July 17 win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where his car failed the laser because of a part broken during his celebratory burnout. The teams of Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne also faced scorn for failing LIS.

And then there’s Ryan Newman, who might have entered the cutoff race at Richmond trailing by only seven points instead of a much more insurmountable 22-point margin without a P3 penalty sustained from an LIS failure at Darlington Raceway. The increased deficit changed everything about how the Richard Childress Racing driver approached making the playoffs.

Will Newman feel any less aggrieved by Wednesday’s news that Truex and Johnson left scot-free for a similar infraction?

There might be some solace in learning that NASCAR will send all remaining playoff cars through the laser inspection system for the final nine races of the playoffs. After the opener at Chicagoland Speedway, only nine of the 16 cars went through the LIS.

O’Donnell confirmed Wednesday that every eligible car will be rolled across the platform over the final nine races – an idea advocated by NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton this week.

It’s the right thing to do – every contender should face the same scrutiny – but it’s also the hard thing.

It will mean a longer wait to declare cars legal after the race.

And if a car fails despite being afforded double the leeway as before, the stakes are extremely high.

Failing the laser now means the violation rises to a P4 penalty, which virtually dooms any team’s championship hopes. It also creates the potential of an “encumbered” win – which would preclude advancement in the playoffs or potentially capturing a title.

In the starkest of terms, if the highest finisher of the four contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway fails the laser inspection, its championship would be stripped. Given the rhythm of past postrace celebrations, it’s conceivable that a driver could be hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy when the news arrives it isn’t his.

As conciliatory and magnanimous as NASCAR officials seemed Wednesday, circumstances might dictate they are just as domineering and merciless in shaking down the thunder after the season finale in two months.

Wednesday showed NASCAR justice can be served with a heart.

But history shows it usually is accompanied by a hammer — and almost assuredly will next time.