NASCAR walked down the right path Monday evening when they delivered swift and decisive penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for ham-handedly altering the results of Saturday night's race.
The penalties were surprising—Martin Truex Jr. lost his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the organization was fined a record $300,000—and also necessary. The sport simply had to send a message that blatant manipulation of a race's outcome by tanking the performance of team cars wasn't tolerated. Were the sport to not take any action, the fallout could have been disastrous on both fan and reputation fronts.
Something just had to be done.
Trouble is, Monday night's punishment for the sins of the weekend wasn't near enough to prevent another team from brazenly trying a repeat of MWR's actions in the future. NASCAR made that clear when it said it didn't have conclusive evidence that Clint Bowyer's spin and odd late-race pitting was a part of the whole scheme. NASCAR only prosecuted based on the directness of radio conversations from team principal Ty Norris to driver Brian Vickers.
The lesson? Be a lot smarter and a lot more coy, and the sanctioning body won't go through the trouble of finding a team guilty.
In fact, this issue has moved well beyond whether or not Clint Bowyer spun intentionally on Saturday night. It's past the argument of fairness relating to four-time series champion Jeff Gordon being left on the outside looking in.
It's to the point where NASCAR needs to make institutional changes that make team orders and race manipulation a virtual impossibility. That's the only way to beat a garage area that gets smarter every day.
Of course, no system will likely ever be perfect in NASCAR's world of multi-car teams and alliances that extend from Charlotte to Denver. That’s problem No. 1 when considering how to avoid a Richmond repeat. Think about it—no other sport ever features a competition where competitors have more to gain by working together than by beating each other.
But in today’s NASCAR, that is never going to change. The chicken has flown the coop.
So NASCAR needs to approach governing just how teams can race each other in a two-pronged manner: First, make substantial changes to the point scoring system that truly and substantially reward winning, and second, draft specific rules and team-crushing penalties for entities that fall out of line. Doing so removes much of the temptation to manipulate the finish of race and then adds a hefty reason to not otherwise consider it.
It’s no secret that the way NASCAR hands out points after each race contributed heavily to Saturday night’s actions. There’s simply too much focus on earning points in positions that don’t actually matter. Why else would a driver that finishes 23rd instead of 25th, as Joey Logano did following Bowyer and Vickers’ actions, have such an effect?
A solution to this issue actually lies in an area of racing known for having its own fair share of problems with team orders—Formula 1. The point structure used by that series gives 25 points to the winner of a race and just one point to the 10th-place car. It’s a sliding scale between the two positions, but 11th or worse earn nothing.
The beauty of using that system or a similar one for NASCAR is two-fold. First, it’s a scale that actually provides a much stronger bonus for winning the race. Second, it creates a smaller gap in the overall running order for teammates to find ways to benefit one another during desperate times like the end of the Richmond race. For example, Vickers, lapped at the point of Bowyer’s caution, would never have had a chance to help Truex.
NASCAR would also face fewer of the issues of team orders that Formula 1 has with the same system because the culture of NASCAR is less dependent on a “primary” driver and the field is typically double the size, making the top-10 positions even more difficult to obtain.
As for penalties, NASCAR could have stood to be much tougher on MWR if they were truly intent on sending a message. Yes, removing Truex from the Chase was unprecedented. Yes, the $300,000 fine was large. And yes, the point penalties were technically massive.
But none of the actions were downright crippling, which is likely why MWR opted not to appeal the penalties. They sting, sure, and left the team with a black eye. But should Bowyer succeed in the Chase, that bruise will quickly fade.
NASCAR should consider driver suspensions, team suspensions and fines that start no lower than $1 million. The penalties should also follow newly-written rules that expressly forbid multi-car teams to play games with a finishing order.
NASCAR came close Monday to fully policing an issue that’s been simmering in the sport for years. MWR was just the unfortunate team that got caught making such a substantial effort to get a team in the playoff hunt.
If NASCAR really wants to stop the funny business from happening again, they’ll work up systematic changes to be used in 2014.
Let’s hope they do.