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.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.