NASCAR has a chance to set a precedent for penalties for violations with its new Sprint Cup Series car. And it can possibly reinforce one for crashing a driver under caution. But before those rulings have been announced, the lines for what can and can't be said about the sport by its drivers have become muddled even further.
Saturday night, after the conclusion of the NRA 500 at Texas, defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski was outspoken in his frustration with how he feels his team has been targeted. Before the race, NASCAR officials had the Penske teams make modifications to the rear-end housings on its cars, after NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said that what the Penske cars had done to their cars was "not in the spirit of the rule."
After finishing ninth, Keselowski said to a group of reporters that "There's so much stuff going on you have no (expletive) idea what's going on. And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days in absolutely shameful."
The Penske cars were each parked next to a Hendrick car. Does that mean anything? It could, or it couldn't. What we do know, however, is that NASCAR won't penalize Keselowski for his comments.
"No, we’re not because that’s the beauty of NASCAR, we do allow the drivers to express themselves in that way, even if they say things that we would disagree with," NASCAR CEO Brian France said in an interview Monday morning on Fox Business Channel. "I would certainly disagree with everything that he said, but look they’re frustrated, this is the most intense racing in the world so not surprising that every once in a while when things don’t go your way you just sort of blow off a lot of steam.”
If you did a double-take after reading France's comments, you're not alone. And Denny Hamlin surely crossed your mind as well. Hamlin was fined $25,000 for comments that he made after Phoenix about the quality of racing with NASCAR's new car, saying that the car didn't race as well as the previous car.
Though the specific subject matter was different, Hamlin's comments were far more innocuous than Keselowski's. By the Hamlin standard, Keselowski's fine was set up to be considerably higher. Instead, there won't be one at all. And that doesn't make much sense.
When announcing Hamlin's penalty, NASCAR said in part that it "will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product." Isn't speaking of bias in the inspection process by definition denigrating the racing product?
By (ridiculously) penalizing Hamlin, it looked like NASCAR had made a pretty clear statement that criticism wouldn't be tolerated, right? Apparently not. Or only in certain circumstances. Or only if those certain circumstances involve a machine without senses rather than the inspectors and rules enforcers that NASCAR relies on to give the sport as level a playing field as possible.
In a vacuum, not penalizing Keselowski and France's comments are an admirable show of restraint by the sanctioning body. But in the Hamlin-fine world that NASCAR chose to operate in during the season's second weekend, it's further ammunition for the belief that NASCAR is inconsistent when it comes to enforcing issues that consist of any gray area.
Speaking of gray areas, as Jenna Fryer noted in the linked article above, in his comments about the rear end housings of the Penske cars, Pemberton never said that they were illegal. But either Tuesday or Wednesday, both Logano and Keselowski will likely be docked points and crew chiefs Todd Gordon and Paul Wolfe will be suspended. (NASCAR's usual penalty announcement day is on Tuesday, but Keselowski is scheduled to take his championship visit to the White House that day.)
While rear-end parts and configurations have been penalized and confiscated many times before, it's the first violation of any kind on the new car. Under the current points system, 25 points has been the norm for similar violations.
After the race there were other inspection issues too, as second-place finisher Martin Truex Jr.'s car was deemed too low in post-race inspection. Those violations have previously drawn a six point penalty and a crew chief fine.
The trickiest circumstance is in the Camping World Truck Series. Late in Sunday's race at Rockingham, Ron Hornaday crashed Darrell Wallace, Jr. under caution. Hornaday was unhappy with the way he felt Wallace raced him, and wanted to deliver a message to Wallace about his unhappiness. But, much like Hamlin at Bristol with Logano, Hornaday, who said he felt like an idiot, said he ultimately didn't mean to crash Wallace.
"I don't have a reputation for doing it," Hornaday said to ESPN. "I've never been sat down or suspended or been watched in NASCAR. I've never been the bad boy of anything, so I don't know if it's the same or not the same."
The same that Hornaday is talking about is the penalty that was given to Kyle Busch for wrecking Hornaday under caution at Texas in the Truck Series in 2011. Busch was suspended for the following Nationwide and Cup Series races. In that race, Busch was parked immediately after the incident. Sunday, Hornaday was sent to the rear of the field for the final restart.
Because the incident was under caution, do Hornaday's actions warrant a suspension like Busch's? Texas is a track with higher speeds than Rockingham, and Busch was a full-time Cup driver (with a history, though it's unclear just how much past incidents played in the suspension) driving in the Truck Series for the weekend.
Or will Hornaday merit a points penalty similar to what Jeff Gordon received at Phoenix last year for intentionally crashing Clint Bowyer? Phoenix is a slightly slower track than Rockingham, and Gordon completed his retaliation under the green flag. For his actions, Gordon was penalized 25 points and fined $100,000 but not suspended for the final race of the season at Homestead, a race in which he won.
Along with the Penske cars and Truex, we'll find out shortly.