Tarnished victory?

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – After the debacle last weekend in California, NASCAR needed a weekend without stepping in it. And for most of Sunday afternoon NASCAR didn't.

The weather cooperated, the crowd bulged inside Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the UAW-Dodge 400 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. challenged for the win.

But then came the Carl Edwards tire incident, which forced NASCAR into making one of its judgment calls. That was followed by the Carl Edwards oil lid incident, which will force it to make another call Tuesday.

If only Dale Jr. had won, things would be so much easier. But he didn't. Edwards did, and now NASCAR is left to explain a few things.

First, the oil cooler lid incident.

In postrace inspection, NASCAR found the lid in Edwards' oil cooler "off." That's how it was explained. Off.

That means Edwards could have had an advantage. No oil cooler lid means more air, which could mean more speed.

There is a precedent for this. Five cars were found with the same violation following the Nationwide race at Daytona. Each received a 25-point penalty and the respective crew chiefs were suspended for six races and put on probation for the remainder of the season.

The difference here is none of those five cars won the race. Edwards did.

So when NASCAR takes Edwards' car back to its R&D center in North Carolina, what will come of it?

This is where it gets tough for NASCAR.

If it finds something wrong, what will it do?

Well, we know the answer to this question: NASCAR will dock Edwards points, probably 100, suspend his crew chief and levy a fine.

The problem is, any penalty hints that there was some wrongdoing on the part of Edwards' crew. If that's the case, why not yank the win away from him?

Rules are rules, after all, and if you're going to penalize cheating off the track, they need to treat cheating on the track even harsher.

Which brings us to the tire incident.

Fifty-two laps before taking the checkered flag, Edwards came onto pit road to get four fresh tires. As he left his pit stall, one of his old tires wandered across the infield at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, having somehow gotten loose.

Per NASCAR rules, Edwards could have been issued a penalty. But NASCAR determined the errant tire wasn't the fault of Edwards' crew but rather an erroneous cameraman who got in their way.

Instead of penalizing Edwards a lap, NASCAR allowed him to maintain his third-place position – a decision that changed the entire complexion of the race.

NASCAR can – and did – explain away its decision because it has written its rulebook in a fashion that leaves every rule in it open to its own judgment. Case in point, the rules regarding tire changes:

"If in the judgment of NASCAR officials a team made every effort to control a tire and circumstances beyond their control cause the tire to travel across the pit road, a lap or time penalty may not be assessed."

Eleven days ago, NASCAR penalized Robby Gordon 100 points for an unapproved nose on his car. Before NASCAR handed down the penalty, Gordon pled his case, saying he didn't know the nose was an unapproved version, that the wrong part came from the manufacturer and that it had nearly an identical inventory number as the approved nose.

"We're going to jail for a crime we didn't commit," Gordon said.

NASCAR's response: Tough luck.

"Rules are rules," NASCAR's Sprint Cup competition director John Darby said when I rehashed Gordon's explanation to him.

When Darby told me this, I understood, because even though I'm certain Gordon wasn't trying to skirt the law, NASCAR would be opening up a Pandora's box once it allowed one person to play dumb.

But let's spin this forward. From the rule above, take out the word 'tire' and replace it with words befitting Gordon's situation and here's what you get:

"If in the judgment of NASCAR officials a team made every effort to use the correct nose and circumstances beyond their control cause them to use the wrong nose, a penalty may not be assessed."

Why was Edwards allowed to skate but not Gordon?

"You're assuming it was inadvertent," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said of Gordon's explanation for the unapproved nose.

It's a valid point but one that paints NASCAR into a corner. Because later this week, if it ends up penalizing Edwards for the oil cooler lid incident, the only way NASCAR can legitimately explain not taking away the win is to assume its being off "was inadvertent."

Oh, they were so close to it all being good. If only Junior had won.