NASCAR probably made the right call Saturday night by rescinding Kyle Busch's penalty for allegedly entering pit road illegally. Video evidence of an infraction showing Busch's left-side tires either right on or right next to the defining painted box was unclear at best. So NASCAR, after initially beckoning Busch to the race's rear, dropped the penalty after the No. 18 team lodged a passionate protest.
Ultimately, it was a smart call using ample discretion about the spirit and intent of a rule NASCAR has implemented at every track. But it was a call, based on replay, that could have been defensible had it stood. And, boy, did it throw some accelerant on the recent tumult about how NASCAR is ruling its roost.
There are now questions galore on what the ruling - and ultimately a precedent - means for race governing in the sport going forward. Why did NASCAR decide to review it? Did they factor in recent penalties in deciding to overturn it? Would Busch have received the same review if the race had taken the green flag? Does NASCAR now have a set-in-stone review process for incidents like this?
Changing a penalty ruling mid-race for NASCAR isn't new, but it's not a situation that has definition when it comes about. There are no timeouts to call for a coach to discuss the incident with an official and no little red challenge flags. Instead, the penalty reviews happen seemingly with how the wind blows. You've got to think the competing teams are as confused as ever with the event rulebook adding more grey while the chassis and engine side only seems to be adding more steep ledges.
In one breath, NASCAR is penalizing Brad Keselowski at Martinsville for a pit stall violation that very well could have been ruled the other way with a simple look at video evidence.
In another breath, the sanctioning body has been pounding Matt Kenseth, Keselowski and Joey Logano with ham fisted penalties, suspensions and fines off the track in the name of a black-and-white rulebook. The violations - now working through NASCAR's appeal process - don't seem especially heinous. In Kenseth's case, his Kansas engine rule violation seemingly brought zero advantage.
And then, in the latest breath at Richmond, NASCAR plays one off-the-cuff to let Kyle Busch go from a called penalty. The reversal came after video evidence, again, plausibly proved his innocence and dramatic verbal appeal that included Busch alluding negatively over his in-car radio to the immense penalties laid on his teammate last week. To compound the confusion, the rescission of Busch's penalty came exactly a year after Carl Edwards watched a dominating Richmond performance disappear when NASCAR levied an extremely controversial penalty for jumping a restart.
There's little question NASCAR's penalty land has become quite the confusing place, and it's starting to feel like the sport is grasping at straws for no particular reason. What else explains slamming teams for trying to innovate within NASCAR's razor-thin rulebook (Penske), nailing Joe Gibbs Racing for a part less than three grams under specification with no performance advantage, and then letting Gibbs and Busch off the hook for a visually defensible penalty?
Certainly the successive timing of these questionable incidents and results creates a multiplier effect. But even on their own, they reek of inconsistency, an inability to see the larger situation, or both.
I get the feeling there is no fixing NASCAR's current desire to exert excessive force on teams for technical violations. That will only come if and when teams start winning successive appeals.
But I do think NASCAR could make some headway in solving the questions in race officiating. Take a nod from open wheel racing and put incidents like Busch's or Keselowski's under review by a team of race officials with ample video replay, telemetry and technology access. Add rotating former drivers to the mix each week (like Formula 1) and build a substantive and defined process. Allow teams ample chance to request a penalty review.
Clearing up confusion in the sport with more transparency through demonstrated process is only positive. We can stand to deal with silliness like fining a crew chief nearly a quarter of a million dollars a little while later.
HOT: You should go back and watch Kevin Harvick's restart and subsequent passing in the first two corners Saturday. Sure, he was working on fresh tires while the leaders on tires had something more akin to Fred Flintstone's wheels. And, sure, he restarted on the inside line.
But Harvick could've easily screwed it up, got stuck or crashed. He didn't, and he won. It was a strong restart. It's why Tony Stewart is pretty excited to have him at Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
NOT: Speaking of Tony Stewart, is he ever actually going to fight someone? Or is verbal jabbing and minor shoving enough for NASCAR's steward of racing etiquette to make his point?
NEUTRAL: Speaking of fighting, I don't think Nelson Piquet Jr. meant to use martial arts skills to that extent on Brian Scott. Still, that was funny, sad and head-scratching all at once. Did you notice how both kept their helmets on?
NOT: That said, let's keep this recent rash of NASCAR drama in check. Assaulting people hours after the race to the tune of arrest does no one any good. It'll be interesting to see how NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing handle the situation with the Nationwide Series crew men.
HOT: It'd sure be a shame if NASCAR had to race at short tracks more per season, wouldn't it? (I'm feeling a bit sarcastic after watching a Richmond race that had just about everything you'd want.)
HOT: Three straight top-10 finishes for Aric Almirola isn't huge success, but it is quite a decent run for him. You've got to think his stock is rising when the silly season carousel starts.
NEUTRAL: A late pit call to stay out ultimately didn't work perfectly, but it still netted Phoenix Racing and AJ Allmendinger about five spots higher than they would've finished Saturday. With his 14th-place run, AJ Allmendinger hasn't finished worse than 16th in Sprint Cup this season.
HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya wasn't a flash in the pan Saturday night. He was near the front most of the night - his average running position was 5.1 - and obviously was cruising for the win until the late caution flag. Combined with McMurray's recent improvements, are we looking at a good summer for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing?
HOT: Kurt Busch was even better than Montoya in the average position department Saturday night. It would be a bigger surprise if he didn't get a win for Furniture Row Racing this season.
NEUTRAL: Brian Vickers, it would appear, is finishing his sole command of Denny Hamlin's No. 11 with results that he can't incredibly excited about. He started fine with an eighth-place finish at Texas, but had crashes and handling problems both a Richmond and Kansas last week. His three-race average finish in that car? 24th.
The Stenica Showdown Cup!
We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple does against one another. This is competition, with the highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earning a point. Other points may be earned for various and completely inane reasons along the way (suggestions accepted), and the game ends if the couple uncouples. We should probably start thinking about an appropriate trophy.
1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 9 points (16th at Richmond)
2nd - Danica Patrick., 5 points (29th at Richmond)
Stenhouse scores the on-track point this week for beating Danica by 13 spots and four laps. However, both get a bonus point for their oh-my-god cute moment during the Nationwide Series race seated alone in an empty Richmond grandstand. That ESPN camera shot left me with so many questions. Does Danica have a private Instagram where she posts her self-shots with Ricky? Does she have iCloud, or does she live dangerously like the rest of us without data backup? Did she tap the screen to focus? What kind of food was in the styrofoam containers? Did they order the same thing? How many text messages did they get after their cameo? Were they cheering for the same drivers?
So many questions.
Next up: Talladega! Join us Sunday on the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR Live Chat at 1:00 p.m. ET.
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