Is it time to revamp NASCAR’s inspection system and the way the sanctioning body assesses penalties?
That’s a reasonable question following Kevin Harvick’s massive post-race penalty after his Sunday win at Texas. NASCAR announced Wednesday that Harvick’s car had an illegal spoiler and would be penalized 40 points. More importantly, Harvick’s win no longer counts for automatic qualification into the final round of the NASCAR playoffs.
It’s a huge penalty for Harvick and NASCAR’s elimination playoff system. It’s the first time in five years of the playoff format that reduces the playoff field from 16 to four over nine races that a team’s spot in the final four has been taken away because of a penalty. And it’s the third time in three weeks that inspection has been a massive story throughout the 2018 playoffs.
Hours before Harvick took the checkered flag on Sunday, NASCAR made a huge mess of its pre-race inspection process by sending Jimmie Johnson to the back of the field before the race. Johnson’s car failed pre-race inspection twice but passed on the third try. After three failures, a car loses its starting spot on the grid. Johnson failed just twice — and NASCAR announced it as such — but he went to the back anyway because of what NASCAR said was a “communication” problem.
Less than three weeks ago at Kansas, the final race of the second round, the Friday before the race was consumed with a penalty appeal by Kyle Larson’s team. Larson’s team was penalized earlier that week for using unapproved fasteners while fixing damage during the previous race at Talladega. The appeal failed and Larson’s 10-point penalty was upheld.
The same type of questions that surrounded Larson’s penalty surround Harvick’s. Larson’s team made the fixes during pit stops which are monitored by NASCAR officials. How did the sanctioning body miss the illegal modifications that Larson’s team was making to the car in real time and not penalize them during the race? Back when teams were denting the sides of their cars during pit stops for aerodynamic edges NASCAR would routinely force teams to fix the dents during the race.
Larson’s penalty could have been caught during the race.
Harvick’s penalty could have been caught before Sunday’s race. The car clearly passed pre-race inspection because Harvick started third, the same place where he qualified. Whatever tweaks Harvick’s team made to his car’s spoiler were disguised enough to get through NASCAR’s optical scanning station — an inspection system that’s supposedly an improvement on the previous laser-based scanning system.
On one hand, you have to hand it to Harvick’s team for figuring out a way to modify the car’s spoiler illegally and get it through pre-race inspection. That takes some serious ingenuity.
Conversely, you also have to wonder what the point of pre-race inspection is if inspection failures of this magnitude are only found in a more thorough post-race inspection, especially when looking at the rest of the post-race penalty report from Texas.
The cars of both Ryan Blaney, who finished second, and Erik Jones, who finished fourth, were taken back to NASCAR’s research and development center along with Harvick’s for deeper inspection after the race. Blaney’s car had an issue with the front crush panels. Jones’ car had an issue with the air flow in the interior of the car. They were both penalized 20 points.
If all three cars that got taken for a more thorough inspection were penalized for distinctly different issues, some or most of the 37 cars in the field were probably violating NASCAR’s way-too-thick rulebook in one way or another even though they all passed pre-race inspection. Should every playoff car be torn down after races over the final 10 weeks of the season?
Does pre-race inspection need to be more thorough? It’d be a more time-consuming and demanding process for NASCAR and teams but it certainly could be an option. NASCAR would undoubtedly like to prevent as many post-race inspection failures as possible and a better pre-race inspection process could do that. Or does post-race inspection need to be done at the track as soon as the race is over? That would expedite the penalty announcements.
Does NASCAR need to go a step further and reduce the size of the rulebook? More rules mean more potential chances at rule violations. Is it as simple as thinning the rulebook in spots where it’s become bloated?
Or has NASCAR created a monster that it simply can’t tame, especially this late in the season? The top teams in the series have engineering talent that’s always looking for a creative way to find more speed within — or at least with the premise of being within — NASCAR’s rules. Series officials are always going to be forced to react to that ingenuity.
The ingenuity and the ensuing NASCAR reactions are always going to be magnified in a playoff system that rewards winning like NASCAR’s win-and-advance format does as well. Teams can’t win races without pushing boundaries in as many ways as they can, especially when a championship can be won with four well-timed wins at the end of the season.
And given that NASCAR has pushed the playoff format as a way to make itself more marketable during football season, that magnification is partially its own creation. At least a title-winning car hasn’t failed inspection after the final race of the season. Yet.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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