Opinion: The NASCAR infraction policy sufficiently penalizes illegal winners
NASCAR still can’t bring itself to outright disqualify teams that fail post-race inspections but the current policy is pretty dang stiff.
Joey Logano won the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday afternoon at Richmond International Raceway but his Ford failed a thorough inspection over the next several days at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina.
Specifically, the No. 22’s truck trailing arm spacer and pinion angle shims were not in complete contact with its mating surface and that’s a violation of the NASCAR rule book. As a result, Logano’s victory has been declared ‘encumbered’ and he will not automatically qualify for the playoffs due to the result.
Additionally, he will also be stripped of the five playoff points that came with his victory, in addition to suffering a 25 championship point deduction. While it’s not the full disqualification that many fans have clamored for in recent seasons, this is as close as NASCAR has come in recent years.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was one of those advocating for a complete disqualification policy to be adopted by NASCAR decision-makers. While writing for another publication, I wrote that NASCAR penalties carried no consequence and only a full disqualification would discourage teams from pushing too far into the gray area of a NASCAR’s rule book.
This rant was inspired by NASCAR penalizing Matt Kenseth for winning the July race at Dover but allowing him to keep the bonus points that came with his triumph. The fine and points penalty simply wasn’t enough considering that winning was the only thing that mattered in NASCAR from 2014-2016.
This goes back to the larger issue of NASCAR’s lack of consequence during the regular season, and the No. 20 team likely working within that luxury of already having a victory during the summer stretch. So while this was Kenseth’s second victory, what if it had been his first? What if it had taken place during the Chase? What if some team won their way into the playoffs or into the next round but failed post-race inspection?
These are important questions for NASCAR to explore in the current winning-trumps-consistency era. Allowing that team to advance would be an unfortunate message to send to both the garage and the fans. And while NASCAR has expressed a willingness to strip Chase berths or seed points after an inspection failure, stripping victories remains off the table.
Honestly, that’s just a silly use of semantics. But most importantly, disqualifying offending “winners” is simply the right thing to do. The first legal car to cross the finish line should be the winner of the race, regardless of the circumstances. And in 2016, the fans will have no problems learning of what happened in the case of problems in the tech shed.
Even though NASCAR still hasn’t adopted a technical disqualification policy, it did introduce the ‘encumbered finish’ rule just two months later. Almost in response to the Kenseth incident earleir that summer, NASCAR crafted a rules update that ensures that an illegal car would not advance its driver into or through the playoffs.
As I wrote earlier on Thursday, NASCAR’s stage-based playoff points system has corrected much of the inconsequential nature of the regular season that plagued the sport from 2014-2016. The special points earned at the end of each stage and for winning races carry over throughout the playoffs all the way up to the Homestead-Miami Speedway championship race.
For the first time in over a decade, the events of the regular season matter throughout the entire playoffs.
Thus, NASCAR’s decision to strip Logano of his playoff berth and the five playoff points that come with it are pretty substantial. Sure, the No. 22 team is good enough to make the playoffs even if they don’t win another race for the remainder of the regular season — something that’s unlikely to happen anyway.
But the loss of five playoff points could hurt big time if that’s the difference between advancing into the Championship Four come November at Phoenix International Raceway. And the 25 championship points could potentially cost Logano a shot at the ‘regular season championship,’ something that is no longer an arbitrary title since it carries with it a reward of 15 additional playoff points.
In short, Thursday’s penalty is pretty stiff. It’s not the disqualification policy that many fans want to see in the modern era, but this is the closest that NASCAR has come to it in a long time. Illegal winners are no longer getting a slap on the wrist and that should be applauded.