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?’ ”

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