If you’re reading this at home, look under the couch cushions and find a quarter. If you’re at work and already spent your quarter to buy a fix of Cheese-Its, grab about 15 sheets of paper from the printer.
Maybe you’ve hit the big time and keep business cards around. Stack three on your desk. That thickness is what has caused this week’s controversy in the Sprint Cup Series.
Last week after the Sprint Cup event at Loudon, NH, Clint Bowyer was poised to be the underdog story of this Chase for the Sprint Cup. His win catapulted him from being the guy who barely made the Chase into a legitimate title contender—second in points. Then everything changed.
After an inspection at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in North Carolina, the No. 33 Chevy driven by Clint Bowyer was found to have exceeded tolerances allowed by NASCAR for the height of the left quarterpanel. Most have said that the deviation was about 1/16 of an inch.
We’ve seen all of this before: teams riding waves of momentum exposed for alleged violations of the NASCAR rulebook. Most recently in 2007 we saw both the No. 48 and No. 24 teams—both title contenders—popped for 100 points and heavy fines after their fenders were deemed too wide at Infineon Raceway in California.
There were differences: the alleged infractions were found before qualifying during trackside inspections, and the Hendrick penalty was levied before the Chase began. This time, the infraction was after the race, and it went undetected during the post-race inspection process.
There are also similarities: both infractions were alleged modifications of NASCAR’s strictly mandated body measurements, and the reactions of the teams were the same.
“If you’re going to try to do something to gain an advantage you wouldn’t do it and roll it through inspection,” Rick Hendrick said at the time.
Over the weekend, Richard Childress contended that they wouldn’t have brought a car that was in violation knowing that the car was going to be confiscated after the race for inspection at the Research and Development Center.
Clint Bowyer and his race team have been hit with the Chaser’s death penalty. It’s 150 points, and the loss of Shane Wilson, the crew chief, for six weeks. It took them from second in points to 12th with just one measurement.
RCR has stated that it believes the infraction could have come from contact with other cars during the race or after the race when a wrecker pushed the car down the front straightaway. To the person sitting at home, it seems logical. Most passenger cars would sustain some sort of damage after being pushed by a Freightliner.
Some drivers disagree. Point leader Denny Hamlin says that teams take a risk when they flirt with the tolerances NASCAR allows in the measurement of the car.
“Some teams choose to get closer to that line than others because there are things that happen out on the racetrack," Hamlin said. "There are things—variables that happen during the race that could make you be wrong.”
NASCAR is now in a position where it must decide whether it can assume the car was within tolerance, pushed out by the wrecker or racing contact, or built incorrectly either on purpose or by accident.
The advantage provided by the height deviation isn’t really NASCAR’s concern. Is it within the rules or not, and why is it like that?
If NASCAR believes the car was brought to the track illegally, than certainly there must be a penalty. If the height deviation was caused by the wrecker, then you’re saying the car was okay when it took the checkered flag.
The sanctioning body has stated time and time again that it won’t overturn the results of a race, but in the era where wins are just a method to win a points title, 150 points has profound implications. This was a steep penalty for a body infraction of dubious origin, no matter how it comes out. Part of a legal defense is providing a jury with an alternate scenario. Most folks have seen enough Law and Order to know that.
This isn’t an illegal part bolted to the car, or a mystery chemical added to the fuel, or shaving weight off the car. It’s a height deviation of questionable cause, that even if it was on the car during the race, it created a questionable advantage.
In other sports, the mantra has always been to let the athletes perform in the playoffs. Most professional sports leagues seem to agree that they don’t want the officials playing a part in the ultimate outcome of a championship season. Maybe this infraction falls into this line of reasoning.
Richard Childress will take his case to the National Stock Car Racing Commission this week. According to NASCAR, of the 132 appeals heard by the commission in the last 10 years, only 42 were reduced or overturned. Hopefully, that’ll be 43 come Wednesday afternoon.
Warn ‘em. Give the No. 33 team a penalty, but don’t effectively take them out of the championship hunt with a devastating blow.
In the past, NASCAR has warned drivers about bump drafting. What if Clint Bowyer loses this championship despite a monster run over the next eight races by 150 points? NASCAR wouldn’t want 2010 to be remembered as the season that the championship was lost because of bump drafting—from a tow truck.