Author’s Note-This article was started after the 2016 Homestead race but was shelved when I saw something else shiny and moved to other things. However recent developments breathed new life into it again, so sit back and enjoy the revived article entitled...
As everyone who knows anything about the sport, 2017 is a watershed year in the Premier Series. Everything has changed and the changes are so numerous I can't even list them here. There is one however that I would like to mention today and that's the new penalty system.
I applaud the concept of shortening the time between violation detection and assessing the penalty. Borrowing from the NFL, if they throw a flag, the penalty is assessed immediately. They don't wait till the following Tuesday to penalize the offender.
I kinda like that.
However, a better solution to pre-race rules violations was offered up a dozen years ago... a penalty system so innovative it is almost perfect.
It came from maybe the unlikeliest of sources - three time Cup Champ and FOX broadcaster Darrell Waltrip. Though not a DW fan, for me to publicly admit I'm agreeing with Darrell Waltrip on anything is just short of miraculous. Though not a fan of his, I am still a race fan and because of that I can give him credit when he says something that I believe is right and will help the sport.
For this I'm sure, if you are on the east side of Beaver Dam KY you can hear my dad spinning in his grave faster than an Ingersoll-Rand Thunder Gun air wrench on a money stop.
In a very hot place somewhere south of Frankfort I'm sure the temperature dropped noticeably... and I'm not talking Talladega here.
I told you 2017 was a year of change.
DW's solution actually goes back a few years, a dozen to be exact. It’s only coming back to light now because of the new changes in the penalty system and some recent developments such as we saw at Texas last weekend.
For a clearer explanation it would be helpful to see its genesis. It was March 2005. The series had just rolled through Las Vegas and what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas. Three races into the new Cup season and it left there in an absolute mess.
After post-race inspection the Vegas race bore a striking resemblance to that old children’s story "The Three Bears". Post-race found winner Jimmie Johnson's car was tooooo tall. Second place Kyle Busch's car was toooo low. Fifth place finisher Kevin Harvick's car was juuuust right ... except he'd been busted days earlier for showing up at qualification with his gas tank rigged to look as though it was full, while it actually only held just enough fuel for the qualification run.
Vegas was a mess and no one, especially the Sanctioning Body was happy about it.
When the dust settled, NASCAR levied the following penalties against the Hendrick team:
Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus (remember those names), and Busch's crew chief, Alan Gustafson each received a two-race suspension and were fined $35,000 and $25,000 respectively. Drivers and owners were fined 25 points.
Childress' team on the other hand received the following penalties:
Harvick's crew chief and unrepentant gadgeteer, Todd Barrier received a four-race suspension and was fined $25,000. Harvick and owner Richard Childress were each fined 25 points.
All appealed the penalties. In their wisdom, (insert sarcasm here) the NASCAR Appeals Board lifted the suspensions on the Hendrick teams, placing Knaus and Gustafson on 90 days probation. They upheld the penalties against Childress' team in full, even though Richard argued theirs should be lighter because their infraction took place before the race and had no impact on the race results, unlike the Hendrick teams who broke the rules during the race and whose violations probably had an impact on the race.
The resultant outcry was understandable and severe. Folks were calling for the win and second place to be taken away from those offending drivers and given to the third place and hopefully first compliant driver, Kurt Busch.
Others called for the suspension of the entire Childress team and parking the car for several races. Cheaters should be punished, they cried and what was meted out hardly fit the "crime" nor acted as a future deterrent. NASCAR was taking a major PR hit at a time in the season when it could least afford it.
It was then that a solution came from the unlikely source. Darrell Waltrip suggested something that if implemented would have not only addressed the Las Vegas fiasco, but possibly address all pre-race "cheating".
DW's solution was simple. Instead of forcing the team to fix the issue before they could get back on the track to practice or penalize them with reduced practice times, points or fines, he proposed to not allow offenders to correct their situations until the green flag dropped and the race started. Then and only then would they be allowed to correct the situation and only after they corrected the situation could they return to the track.
Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!
If DW's rule had been in place in 2005, then once the rigged tank was found, NASCAR officials would have forbidden Harvick's team from correcting the situation before the race. The 29 could go out and practice with their tricked up tank which held maybe two gallons max.
See what they learn from that. See how "Happy" Kevin Harvick would have been in all this.
On race day they would have to start the race with that setup as well, taking the green with their pitiful two gallons of gas while the rest of the hopefully more compliant field rolled off with their 22 gallons of valuable fuel.
Then when the green flag dropped the 29 would be blacked flagged, sent to the pits (or garage) for Berrier and crew to undo the offending setup and bring their car back into compliance, all while the rest of the field was logging laps under green.
The beauty of this is that in Harvick's case it would have been impossible to swap out a gas tank and go back through inspection without losing many, many, many laps. Their penalty would have been commensurate with the amount of work they put into the cheat. The "fine" automatically fit the "crime" and they, not NASCAR would set it.
Under DW's proposal, Harvick's ability to match his eventual fifth place finish would have been impossible and the 25 point penalty eventually tacked on by NASCAR, that fans criticized for being too light, would have automatically been even more severe.
And if that wasn't enough of a deterrent to playing fast and loose with the rules, the embarrassment to them and their sponsors, coupled with all the negative PR and loss of potential TV exposure might cause folks who are highly dependent on those sponsorship dollars to think twice before they got cute and tried to circumvent the rules.
I'm sure if this had of been in place in 2005, Richard Childress would have received a call from Goodwrench that following Monday (if not sooner), voicing their displeasure at seeing their car sitting on pit road lap after lap as the competitors passed them by. How everyone in the stands and at home knew they cheated and how Goodwrench was now "branded" as such. How their fans had to hide their Goodwrench garb on the walk back to their cars to keep from getting heckled by competitors’ fans after the race.
The ramifications would have been great. It probably wouldn't happen again, which is hopefully the desired deterrent effect NASCAR is trying to obtain through their latest rule changes.
His solution was pure. Simple. Effective. And cost nothing. And I believe it would work as well today as when DW first suggested it. And that's why... I... agree... with... him... on it.
You don't know how hard that was to say.
As I reflected on this, I wonder where ol' DW came up with this. Is he that wise? Well, he has won a lot of races, made a lot of money and has a nice job, but from his performances in the booth, you'd not think that was the case.
Or maybe it was that because he talks sooo much and for sooo long that eventually he was bound to say something that made sense. Sort of the old blind squirrel and acorn scenario.
I think it is neither. I think he looked at the situation and reflected on his career and asked himself as a racer, what would be the harshest punishment that could be levied. And that would be to be at the track, in the car capable of winning and have to sit and watch while your crew fixed something silly that you or they had chosen to do, knowing your chance to win had vanished.
I think as he looked at Berrier's trick tank, he probably first admired the ingenuity and work that went into it, wished he or Hammond had thought of it first (or maybe they had and never got caught) and then thought how much of a pain it would have been to have to sit there and watch them rip it out only to fix the car as it should have been when it lined up to qualify and knowing that would cost him a shot at a win.
He may have broken into a cold sweat when he realized how many of his 84 wins he might not of gotten if he had been forced to "uncheat" the car before he could continue the race. How many laps would he have lost filling the frame rails back up with buckshot to bring the car back up to minimum weight after dumping them, 'Bombs away" in the first turn of the first lap.
How many times would he have to pit to fill the front springs back up with charcoal briquettes to get the ride height back into compliance (he was not alone on this one; one writer wrote that on race day at the inside of the first turn at Darlington there was enough charcoal there to barbecue a mule), or laps lost to rip the trick front setup out and replace it with a legal one?
How much he would have disliked riding around all day without a radio, no connection to his crew chief or spotter, while lugging around a lead look-alike "radio" that had been placed in the cockpit before inspection to meet weight limits or how long would he have lasted in practice or would he even want to practice if he had to wear the lead look-alike "helmet" that was in his driver's seat when the car went through inspection?
What about all the laps that would have been lost fixing trick after trick he and Hammond brought to the track trying to gain an advantage? How many races can you win in the pits, laps down? Only he knew and maybe that scared him and he realized just how effective such a rule could be.
Now fast forward to Homestead 2016. Before the start of the final race, the race of races for the whole enchilada (no offense to enchiladas), three of the four Chase competitors failed pre-race inspection, including eventual race winner and seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson. Remember him? A dozen years ago he was that Las Vegas "winner" whose car was toooo tall. He also had the same crew chief then as now.
As I look back I wonder, would we have a seven-time champ if DW's solution had been in place? Could Johnson have won Homestead and the Championship if Chad Knaus had to wait until the green flag dropped before he could bring the offending A-posts back into compliance? How many laps down would his driver have been if they then had to take the repaired car back through the inspection process before being allowed to join the field? Or would Chad have thought twice before presenting a non-compliant car for inspection to begin with? We'll never know.
So, using this rule how would things play out this season? Harvick's Daytona 500 may have been different. He started at the rear anyway due to a track-bar infraction found after the qualifying race. Under the DW rule he would have not been allowed to correct it, would start the Daytona race at the back with it and after the race began, would be required to correct it and go back through inspection before continuing to race. A 22nd place finish may have been difficult for "Happy" to obtain under this scenario.
This week's Texas race might have been different as well. You may recall that numerous teams were unable to get their cars into compliance before qualifying began and had to go to the back of the field. This caused quite an uproar among fans but had little impact on the outcome of the race as offenders such as Larson nearly won the race-(2 place) and other offenders turned in nice finishes including Earnhardt Jr. (5th place), Elliott (9th place) and Kyle Busch (14th place).
Hardly a deterrent effect, wouldn't you agree? And for the rest of the field, what benefit was it to them to do things right to begin with?
Think how different the race outcome would have been if the DW rule had been in effect and on lap two the offenders were black flagged to come into the pits and bring their cars into compliance before rejoining the race. Reckon this would be an issue with those teams again? I doubt it... and isn't that the problem they are trying to solve?
Getting teams to present compliant cars to the Sanctioning Body for inspection is a worthy goal. The new rules and stiffer penalties are a step in that direction. None of those would be as effective as what DW has outlined - a self-imposing penalty process to "encourage" teams to abide.
So the solution is out there. Now it comes down to just how serious the Sanctioning Body is about it. Is the "Cat and Mouse" aspect of the sport something we really want to stop or is so woven into our fabric it can't change? Or is DW's proposal just too powerful a weapon to be trusted by the Sanctioning Body as it eliminates almost any of their discretion? Does the "Sanctioning Body" really want to stop it or is it just a "wink-wink, nod-nod" "we talk tough but really don't want things to change" situation?
The solution has been out there for a dozen years... unadopted. In this case, maybe actions speak louder than words. What do you think?