Is It Time For Encumbered Starts?
Denny has gone and done it. Done it up real good.
At Darlington he had the perfect race weekend. He raced in two different series and won both races. It was very Kyle Busch-esque. Then, after his cars went through post-race R&D Center inspection, he had both wins “encumbered” due to violations. Biggies. L1’s.
Darlington was a “throwback” race with cars taking on the paint schemes from heroes past. Denny made it an absolute “throwback” to that very first Cup race ever. The first car to the checkered flag that day, driven by Glenn Dunaway, was found to be in violation as well.
One big difference between the two was back then that initial “winner” had his win taken away and the honor of being the first Cup winner went to second car to the finish and the first compliant car, which was driven by Jim Roper. Denny goes down in the books as the Darlington winner with an “encumbered” win… but a win all the same.
So Denny gets to keep the win. He gets to keep the trophy… and most of the money. The point penalty was the equivalent of a tenth place finish. He already has an unencumbered win in Cup, so he’ll be Chasing. He’s not running for the Championship in Xfinity series. He’s not even eligible in Xfinity so the net effect of “encumbering” the Darlington wins is pretty minimal.
It's really a shame as it was such a feel-good story, with his “Flying 11” throwback scheme back in Victory Lane and all. Plus, Denny and the crew did a great job to get to the checkers first. But with the Wednesday news, it just doesn't seem to have the same measure of “feel-goodness” to it as it did Saturday night… or even Wednesday afternoon. A little bit less in some eyes.
The JGR folks are blowing it off. This was no aid to the wins. It was not cheating mind you, just “measurement” errors. You know NASCAR - they do one thing at the track and something different at the R & D Center. We were good, in compliance at the track… just ask them.
Move along. Nothing to see here. We have another race to run Saturday night and a Chase after that.
Now the outcry has begun. The penalty doesn't fit the crime. The win needs to be taken away. All points earned for the race need to be stripped. Severe monetary penalties should be levied. Multiple race suspensions for all parties involved should be imposed. The list goes on and on. It's pretty obvious the deterrent effect of the current penalty system isn't deterrent enough. Same team, two cars, same weekend.
NASCAR has listened and swiftly implemented changes, moving it to the top of L1 penalties. Did almost all of it but stripping violators of all their points and their win. It’s a different time with different leadership, economics and dynamics. Brian France isn't Big Bill France and NASCAR 2017 isn't NASCAR 1949. Stripping wins is not going to happen.
It all kinda reminds me of a former co-worker, Dave O’Hara and his dog. Dave’s dog hated other neighborhood dogs. Dave decided to install an invisible fence-you know the one where you bury a wire around the perimeter of the yard and if the dog crosses the wire they receive a shock through its shock collar. His dog soon figured out where the boundary was and for the first few weeks reluctantly complied, nicely staying inside the perimeter. However, it wasn't too long before the neighbors’ dog pranced by and it was more than his dog could take. Dave said you could see him grit his teeth and steel himself for ensuing shock as he charged past the wire to get to his opponents.
His dog knew what was coming and knew it was going to hurt but he was willing to take the pain anyway to get what he wanted. Sounds a little like some in our sport, doesn’t it?
It’s pretty obvious that monetary penalties, point penalties, personnel suspensions and even the new hammer-the “encumbered” win are not having the desired deterrent effect. In this particular instance, all the penalties including “encumbered” wins is almost laughable, especially for the larger organizations like Joe Gibbs Racing. They are big enough to absorb monetary penalties and they run well enough to absorb the point penalties. Personnel suspensions - they have so many talented people employed it's just “next man up” and they keep right on going.
NASCAR’s just announced more severe penalties in each area - the max for L1 violations. Time will tell but I think these will have little impact on teams like JGR. I say it’s time to think outside the box and take a different approach - or to put it in the current NASCAR vernacular, it’s time to “enhance” the “encumbrances.”
Let’s think about this a minute - if we can have “encumbered” wins, why can't we also have “Encumbered” Starts? Betcha that would get some attention!
What’s an “Encumbered” Start, you ask? Using the recent events as an example, when the green flag drops at Richmond, the 11 would take the green flag as normal from wherever they wind up qualifying. However, because of their “Encumbered” Start from the Darlington infractions, the next time by they would be black flagged and forced to go to the pits and serve a one lap penalty. Then, after returning to the track, they can race their way back onto the lead lap because the second part of the “encumbrance” would be “Encumbered” Starters would not be eligible for the Lucky Dogs for this race. No free passes. If they can do it the old fashioned way - earn it, so be it. If not, well that's just part of the penalty.
Simple. Straightforward. Painful. Effective… hopefully.
One would think this additional penalty would be effective enough. If not, if teams still are willing to take the pain to cross the line, NASCAR can make “Encumbered Starts” cumulative. First violation-one “Encumbered” Start. Second-two “Encumbered” Starts. Third… well, you get the idea. So not only do violators lose the benefit of the win for Chase purposes, they also reduce their future opportunities to gain a much needed win to recover from their “encumbered” win - a two-pronged punishment so to speak. At some point, teams will have to decide if it’s going to be worth it to grit their teeth and steel themselves before choosing to cross the line.
“Encumbered” Starts, like “encumbered” wins, still allow fans to leave the race knowing who won, which is so vitally important to NASCAR. It also allows everyone at or viewing the next race to know who got caught. Denny Hamlin fans can still go to Richmond and see him race… they’ll get to see him race harder to see if he can overcome his “Encumbered” Start.
It can also apply to other L1 violators. Joey Logano also got caught up in all the Darlington mess as his car failed post-race inspection (for what sounds like the same violation). Since Joey didn’t win the race he can't have an “encumbered” win, but he can sure be given an “Encumbered” Start. So, if this penalty were in place today, when the black flag fell for the 11 on lap 2 at Richmond, the 22 would also be getting it too and he would have to serve the one lap penalty as well.
“Encumbered” Starts has other negative impacts on violators. They will be all the talk the entire week leading up to their “Encumbered” Start. That pressure would be immense and the negative PR would have an effect. Likewise, it won't take many “Encumbered” Starts and the fallout before sponsors will be calling up to say “We really need to talk.”
Also, in this day of revolving sponsors, where sponsor A may be on the car this race and sponsor B on the car next week, teams should be careful so as to not foul their deals with both. Say Denny had A on his car at Darlington and was scheduled to carry B at Richmond. A’s not going to be happy with the “encumbered” win and B sure isn't going to be happy with their “Encumbered” Start for something they didn’t do. A few instances of that and this could have a more chilling effect on the sponsor front than serving up donuts at the wrong time. Keeping sponsors happy may “encourage” compliance quicker than anything the Sanctioning Body could ever do.
Of course, as with any rule and its penalties, it all comes down to the Sanctioning Body to make it work. Because it has such ramifications, it puts even more pressure on them to be consistent and get it right. Are they really up to that challenge?
“Encumbered” wins is not putting fear in crew chiefs’ hearts; maybe “Encumbered” Starts will. If nothing else it’ll crank up the juice on their shock collars, so they’ll at least think twice before they grit their teeth and steel themselves and run headlong toward the rulebook.