Digesting another penalty: more questions, few answers

NASCAR officials penalized Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team Wednesday and the immediate reaction seemed to be this:

“Why are we just now hearing about the penalty?”

“Shouldn’t something like that be caught at the track?”

“NASCAR needs to fix the process immediately before a champion is crowned and we find out three days later that the winning car failed post-race inspection.”

It’s surprising that much of the outcry was aimed at NASCAR and the inspection process and NOT at the team penalized for an infraction.

Harvick’s team was dealt an L1 penalty for an violation involving his car’s rear spoiler. According to Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, the spoiler was located further to the right of the centerline of the car than allowed during Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That placement allowed more air to reach the right side of the spoiler, thus creating more downforce in the turns.

Harvick won the race, initially earning one of four spots in the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led 177 of 337 laps in his eighth win of the season and departed as the points leader.

The L1 penalty means that the victory is no longer an automatic berth in the final. And the loss of 40 driver points leaves Harvick fourth in the standings, only three points ahead of SHR teammate Kurt Busch.

Additionally, crew chief Rodney Childers has been fined $75,000 and both he and car chief Robert Smith have been suspended for the next two races (the series travels to ISM Raceway in Phoenix this weekend before moving on to Homestead the following week.)

The infraction was not announced at the track following post-race inspection. Miller said a potential issue with the spoiler was noticed at the track but because the car was one of three being taken to the Research and Development Center to complete the teardown process, the decision was made to investigate the piece more thoroughly in Concord, N.C.

Is the situation a black mark for NASCAR? Is it a black mark for the Stewart-Haas team?

Yes. In both cases.

Taking three days to determine and announce a penalty looks less than professional. It makes the sanctioning body look inefficient and inept in this day and age.

Even more so when that penalty has a major impact on the championship battle.

This is the age of technology. NASCAR officials track cars from the time they are taken off their trucks at the track until they go back on 2-3 days later. Goodyear tires are equipped with RFI devices that track their movement throughout the course of a race weekend. Everyone knows where everything is at all times.

Yet it still takes days to wrap up the inspection process following each race.

It’s hard for a lot of folks to understand why that is the case.

Cars can’t go through the entire post-race inspection process and teardown at the track for several reasons, including time constraints. That being the case, some believe that means there are too many things being looked at, too many rules.

Maybe they have a point.

Others wonder why infractions such as the spoiler issue aren’t discovered prior to the race. At the majority of the races, cars are inspected before they are allowed on the track for practice, again before qualifying and once more before the race.

But such things likely are not discovered for the same reason rear window braces became an issue earlier this year – because those parts appear normal/legal prior to the race. Checking the offset of the spoiler has not been a part of the inspection process in the past. Miller indicated it will be going forward.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as saying you ought to be able to inspect certain parts of the car after the race and be done with it. But maybe it ought to be.

The options seem limited: a) crack down and start disqualifying folks when they commit grievous violations, perhaps even taking away wins; b) determine what absolutely has to be inspected after the race and find a way to do so in a more timely manner; c) do nothing and continue to live with the consequences.

As for the No. 4 team, maybe moving the location of the spoiler by the smallest amount doesn’t sound like much. But neither did altered side skirts, window support braces that failed during the race and other tricks of the trade that have resulted in penalties either during the race or afterward.

What Harvick’s team did was not innovation. It was not a mistake. It broke a rule. And now it is paying the price.

Whether it took us too long to get to this point is open for debate.

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