NASCAR has picked up the hammer this season. Now comes the hard part.
Swinging it … and with a judicious understanding of everything that will entail.
Monday’s watershed news — that postrace Cup inspections will be confined to a 90-minute period immediately after the checkered flag and result in disqualifications for any infraction above a few missing lugnuts – was met with universal acclaim from all corners of NASCAR Nation.
And rightfully so.
This should help regain control of the narrative that NASCAR lost so often the past few years in the recurrent quagmire of announcing midweek penalties that effectively invalidated race results long after the fact.
And by finally deciding to strip wins, there will be much less confusion about how a driver and team can be guilty enough to incur points deductions, heavy fines and suspensions but still not have the punishment adequately reflected in the record book.
But as haulers roll into Daytona International Speedway to signal the symbolic opening of Speedweeks and the 2019 season, some extremely heavy lifting still remains ahead for NASCAR officials.
Before the year’s first green flag, they have guaranteed themselves of facing a major controversy – and probably several – with this admirable attempt at reasserting its authority over rulebook enforcement.
There were two instances last year (Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway) and two in 2017 (Denny Hamlin at Darlington, Joey Logano at Richmond) of a winner being busted, and there were nine cars that finished fourth or better that received penalties. The top two finishers (Harvick and Ryan Blaney) at Texas last November would have been disqualified under this new policy, which would have handed an unprecedented win to a third-place finisher.
That could happen this year.
Again, that is mostly a good thing because the tradeoff is a storyline with a much more finite existence. NASCAR should be permanently out of the business of overshadowing races by tripping all over itself with news three or four days later.
But its new disqualification and inspection policies will be accompanied by immense responsibility, compromise and probably a lot of pain in landing on the best way for accomplishing that.
This is what Harvick means in suggesting that how prerace inspections are handled will be more important than postrace. There will be much buy-in required in getting crew chiefs on the same page as officials, and it also will necessitate some give on the part of NASCAR in understanding that policing rules is best served by the absence of zealotry.
Despite all the recent attention on disqualifications, an overarching theme of 2019 needs to be less focus on rules and much more focus on racing – particularly if it’s as good as NASCAR is advertising (or hoping).
That won’t happen if disqualifications become the dominant storyline of the new season, and with a bevy of new guidelines to digest that will lower horsepower while theoretically tightening the competition, the climate seems ripe for that being possible.
Teams inherently are tasked with bending the rules and exploiting loopholes to their advantage – and that should be celebrated to a certain degree.
Though no one wants the taint of criminality, there also is an appeal to the outlaw culture that spawned NASCAR from bootleggers outrunning the law in the hills of North Carolina.
It’s been told so many times the story is probably apocryphal, but after once being cleared in a vigorous postrace inspection, Smokey Yunick reputedly drove away in a race car lacking a fuel tank. The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened nine years ago with a working still, courtesy of former moonshiner and inaugural HOF inductee Junior Johnson, who plainly informed everyone that it would work if you “put fire to the mash” correctly. Some of the richest stories of NASCAR’s glory days told by Richard Petty are about “one of those cheating deals”
There always has been a fine line between innovation and illegality in stock-car racing.
The problem in recent years is there was too much lingering haze surrounding what constituted the latter.
NASCAR is doing the right thing in correcting that, but it needs to be careful in how it categorizes what ultimately is wrong and how it doles out those punishments.
Having the hammer is useful.
So long as it doesn’t shatter something good into a million tiny pieces.
Here are four more things to watch as NASCAR enters the brave new world of the postrace death penalty:
—Social media: There undoubtedly will be a small army of NASCAR inspectors on call for the weekly postrace teardowns of the winning car.
But should there also be an inspector solely watching social media?
Given developments in the Reddit era – whether the tape on Chase Elliott’s Chevrolet after the 2017 playoff opener, or the indent in the rear window of Kevin Harvick’s Ford last year – undoubtedly yes.
The PGA might have outlawed the practice of allowing fans to call in penalties, but these aren’t ticky-tack infractions when it involves the most aerodynamic parts of the car. If something goes viral during or immediately after the race, NASCAR should be aware in its inspections.
—Stick around for fun: In case the winner fails, many have wondered how many members of the second- and third-place teams will linger at the track (would there be a makeshift second victory lane ceremony?).
But maybe there will be incentive
NASCAR confirmed Friday to NBC Sports that after some deliberation, the postrace garage inspections will be open. That means anyone from any team can observe them.
How many would be inclined to stay to “help” NASCAR with that process, or at least be able to watch their opponents’ cars be dissected in greater detail?
—Public shaming: Under the previous policy, winning teams always had enough wiggle room to conjure at least some plausible deniability about failing inspection. That came in part from the victory remaining intact – how serious could it be if that were the case?
That now is gone with disqualifications. It will be much harder to wash out the stain, and that might be harder to square with sponsors. And that leads to …
—… pushing it: While it won’t be tantamount to floggings in the public square, will the backlash from being disqualified help disincentivize going beyond the limits?
There always has been debate about whether teams with at least one legal win (and a berth in the playoffs) would be more or less inclined to push the limits in the regular season. Will that change under the new policy? The potential reputational hit could outweigh any competitive benefits.