NASCAR sheds light on Kevin Harvick’s illegal spoiler penalty

NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller held a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday night to discuss the penalty issued to Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 team earlier in the day.

Among the notable comments:

— Teams are required to purchase the spoilers from a single supplier called Richardson. As such, there’s typically no need to check the spoiler at the racetrack because they’re all the same and can’t be modified. However, NASCAR believes the No. 4 team actually manufactured its own spoiler and passed it off as the standard one — except the illegal spoiler was offset to the right in relation to the center of the car, which was “definitely (an) aerodynamic performance (advantage),” Miller said. NASCAR considered making it an L2 penalty (75 points) but settled on the high end of an L1 penalty (40 points).

— A NASCAR inspector at the track had noticed something “a little suspicious” about the spoiler at the track, Miller said. That led officials to further examine it after returning to the NASCAR Research and Development Center in North Carolina. However, Miller said the penalty was not something that was obvious to the eye or stuck out. But once it was discovered and compared against the CAD drawing in the rulebook, Miller said it was “black and white.”

— Due to the No. 4 team’s infraction, Miller said NASCAR will now be unbolting every spoiler and examining them during at-track inspection for the final two races. That will add another step to the inspection process, which NASCAR obviously didn’t want. “It’s unfortunate now we’ll be pulling spoilers off and have to do another inspection,” Miller said. “The teams should really be bringing legal cars to the racetrack and we shouldn’t have to do that inspection all the time.”

Miller made it clear NASCAR is tiring of teams pushing the limits and is ready for a further crackdown. “I think we’re getting into borderline ridiculous territory,” he said. So what does that mean? For one thing, NASCAR is considering disqualifying illegal cars next season, and officials will discuss the possibility during the offseason. “We’ve heard the fans call out to, ‘Why don’t you disqualify the offending car?’ That’s actually a topic of discussion, along with other things related to the deterrence model,” Miller said. He added the penalties and consequences for teams who bring cars that don’t pass inspection or fit within the rules will be increased next season to a harsher level. “We are hoping we can change the culture to where we don’t have to play this cat-and-mouse game with the teams all the time,” he said. “We have to make the consequences more than just saying, ‘Take that off.’ ‘Take that off’ isn’t working anymore.”

— NASCAR will perform an engine teardown and enhanced post-race inspection immediately after the Homestead race (as it has done in the past) rather than wait until midweek to scrutinize the championship car for any funny business. “Homestead could potentially turn into a Sunday night issue, but it certainly won’t be in the middle of the week,” Miller said. “We will be able to have eyes on those cars and see those things quickly at pre-race and post-race at Homestead. We feel good about the process.”

News Analysis: Kevin Harvick penalized, loses locked-in spot at Homestead

What happened: Kevin Harvick’s ticket to Homestead was revoked after NASCAR found his team used an illegal spoiler during the No. 4 car’s dominating win at Texas. Harvick will technically keep the win, but he lost the benefit that advanced him to the championship race at Homestead. He also lost 40 points (of the 60 he earned in the race), which now puts him just three points ahead of the cutoff line heading to Phoenix. Crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Cheddar Smith were suspended for the rest of the season, and Stewart-Haas Racing said it will not appeal. Former Kurt Busch crew chief Tony Gibson will lead Harvick’s team for the final two races. The second-place car of Ryan Blaney and the fourth-place car of Erik Jones were also found to have serious violations; the third-place car of Joey Logano was not brought back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for the same type of thorough inspection.

What it means: Given the severity of the penalty, the timing of the championship implications and the lack of an appeal by the team, the logical conclusion is this must have been a blatant attempt to skirt the rules rather than some sort of mistake or misunderstanding. It’s tough for fans to hear a race winner was cheating like this, but it’s a reminder all of the top NASCAR teams are likely pulling some sort of trickery and working in gray areas to find speed. That’s how teams separate themselves in NASCAR and why crew chiefs get paid the big bucks. Was it worth the risk? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know how long Harvick’s team had been doing this or how much of an impact it had on the team’s speed. Harvick also had another encumbered win earlier this season (in Las Vegas), but still ended up with the most successful season of his career anyway. Plus, Harvick still goes to his best track with a chance to advance to Homestead and win the championship in spite of the penalty. If NASCAR had taken all 60 of the points Harvick earned in the race instead of 40 — thereby completely erasing his Texas performance short of taking the trophy — it might be a different story.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): Nine. When the best team all year dominates a race and is found to have broken the rules, then gets removed from the championship, that’s about as big as it gets. I would put this as a 10, but I have to leave some room in case the Homestead winner cheats and gets stripped of the championship — which seems like a real possibility now.

Three questions: What exactly did Harvick’s team do to the spoiler that made it illegal? Will Harvick experience any dropoff in performance after the team was caught, or will this not have any impact on the car’s speed? If NASCAR had taken the win away in this case, who would get the trophy given the second-place car was also illegal and the third-place car wasn’t inspected as thoroughly?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 opener at Martinsville…

1. What if….

I recently invented a special machine that allows me to travel between parallel universes and watch NASCAR races in two different dimensions. I just arrived back from the alternate universe where Joey Logano elected to race cleanly and NOT move Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Martinsville.

If you’re wondering how that decision went over with everyone, I brought the postrace transcript from Logano’s runner-up press conference from the parallel universe. Here it is.

REPORTER 1: “Joey, it looked like you had a chance to move Martin out of the way on that last lap and backed out of it. What was going through your mind there, knowing that may have cost you a chance to reach Homestead?”

LOGANO: “Look, I love winning. But clean driving is everything to me. If I can’t have the respect of my competitors, I don’t want to be doing this. Martin raced me fair and square, so I wanted to do the same in return.”

REPORTER 2: “That’s great, but what do you say to your fans and team after passing up a guaranteed shot to make the final four?”

LOGANO: “Martin is a classy guy. We attend each other’s charity events and he’s always so nice when my wife and I see him in the motorhome lot. I know we’ll be friends for years to come. It’s just not worth it to ruin that relationship. Heck, we’re supposed to go out on the lake together this week!”

REPORTER 3: “Joey, it looks like Twitter is lighting up with fans who say you must not want a championship badly enough if that’s how you race. How do you answer critics who say you get paid millions of dollars to do whatever it takes to win?”

LOGANO: “Have you ever been loudly booed by a crowd? Have you ever had a driver’s significant other tweet something negative about you? I mean, geez. Those things hurt. I don’t want any part of that. I would rather be a good guy and keep my reputation intact than do anything to make people think I’m a dirty driver.”

(TWO MONTHS LATER)

SPONSOR: “Joey, we like you a lot, but we’re paying $20 million a year for our car to win races and championships. We’re going to be moving on.”

LOGANO: “Aw, OK. I hope we can still be friends!”

2. Respect for Truex

Is it possible to agree with Logano’s last-lap move and still empathize with the obvious anger felt by Truex and Cole Pearn?

Absolutely.

Truex had an incredible drive on Sunday. He had his qualifying time thrown out and started in the back, only to make it through the field — at Martinsville, no less! — and contend in the top five almost the entire day.

Truex fought his way toward the front, then patiently and cleanly worked Logano for the lead until making what seemed to be the winning pass.

Had Truex won, that would have been one of the highlights of his career: First short track win, a win-and-in ticket to Homestead, high stakes with his team getting ready to shut down and people loudly saying he’s the most vulnerable of the Big Three drivers to miss the final four.

Instead…Logano ran into him. And now making Homestead is no sure thing.

Frustrating! Super, super frustrating! Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

I still don’t blame Logano for making the move, but it’s completely understandable why Truex and his fans would be upset about it. When looking back in a couple weeks, that one moment could very well be the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

That said, as mad as he may be now, I see no scenario under which Truex retaliates. He’s just not that kind of driver. Even if he doesn’t make Homestead, Truex isn’t going to go out and ruin Logano’s championship race with a crash. He might race Logano hard, but Truex won’t pull a Matt Kenseth. No way.

3. What’s the code?

I’m not a driver, so this is just one interpretation of what’s OK on the last lap in NASCAR and what isn’t.

— If you can move someone out of the way and do it without ruining their day — i.e. without wrecking them or costing them more than a few positions — then it’s not only acceptable in NASCAR, but expected. And even encouraged by series officials.

— If you have a chance to door someone for a side-by-side finish, it’s a coin toss as to whether the other driver and the general fan base will think it’s an acceptable move. This often depends on the person initiating the contact.

— If you accidentally wreck the person while trying to move them (like Denny Hamlin on Chase Elliott), that is considered off-limits and there will be repercussions from both the other driver and fans.

— If you crash the person in a reckless-but-unintentional way (not necessarily on purpose, but understanding there will be full contact like Noah Gragson on Todd Gilliland), people may view it the same way as a blatant takeout.

— If you completely crash someone on purpose in order to win, that’s viewed as a dirty move that takes no talent and the fallout might stain your reputation for years.

Logano’s move on Truex — like any bump-and-run at a short track — is about the least offensive way to physically move someone and falls into the first category. That’s the type of move that can only happen in stock car racing and is a hallmark of what makes NASCAR fun. You’re not going to get that in Formula One, let’s put it that way.

4. Stuff that doesn’t matter

Over the last four weeks, I’ve taken a step back from NASCAR as I got off the road for the birth of my daughter. Though I’ve tried to follow the news as much as possible, there’s no doubt having a newborn at home makes it difficult to be as immersed in the NASCAR bubble as the weeks when I’m on the road at races.

And I’ve got to tell you: Looking at the big picture, it’s a bit alarming how the NASCAR world seems to get caught up in minor, tiny crap that doesn’t really matter and actually detracts from the sport.

One example is the race day morning inspection where qualifying times get thrown out. Here I am as a TV viewer who woke up excited to spend my Sunday watching some short-track racin’ across the country. I opened my Twitter app, and what was the big storyline of the day? Drivers getting their qualifying times disallowed, starting at the back for unapproved adjustments, crew members getting ejected, etc.

Seriously? This is what we’re talking about on playoff race day morning?? For a short track where aero doesn’t even really matter???

Officiating things that way certainly seems excessive. And yes, I know all about the reasons why they do it; I’m explaining the big-picture view of why it seems silly.

Another example was the race a couple weeks ago at Talladega. My wife was in the hospital that day and I was unable to pay much attention to the race, though we had it on in the background on mute.

When I tried catching up with what happened, the big controversy was apparently about whether NASCAR should have made the caution one lap shorter and whether officials should have thrown a yellow for a wreck on the last lap instead of having it finish under green.

Look, I completely understand why those are significant debates for those in the NASCAR industry and fans who are super passionate about the sport. But can you imagine how all this looks to casual fans or people who might want to give NASCAR a chance?

Headlines like Drivers criticize NASCAR for running them out of fuel with long caution! and Fans angry NASCAR chose drama over safety on last lap! just seem like such minor things from afar. As does Defending champion will start at the back today for failing laser scan on first try!

I’m not suggesting I have the solution to all this, because I don’t. And I’m not criticizing the media, certainly; when I get back at Texas next week, I’ll be all-in with the bubble once again.

But if these are the storylines, NASCAR has some real work to do. It cannot afford to be stuck on the minutiae, because there aren’t enough people left who care that much. Simplify things, focus on what really makes people want to spend their time on the sport (great racing and interesting driver storylines) and everyone will be much better off.

5. What’s next?

Logano taking a guaranteed spot at Homestead means at least one of the Big Three is going to have to point their way into the final four. After Martinsville, Truex and Kevin Harvick are tied for the last two spots, 25 points above the cutline.

I think both will be OK, as will Kyle Busch. Harvick is probably going to win Texas, Phoenix or both; Busch might win one of those as well. That means Truex, with a pair of top-five finishes, should be just fine.

Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are already facing big points deficits after just one week. Are any of them going to win a race in this round? I actually think it’s more likely a non-playoff type like a Denny Hamlin or a Brad Keselowski will win, which would open up an addition points position for a Big Three member.

So as it turns out, perhaps all of the Big Three will make it to Homestead after all — just maybe not exactly how we expected.

What the hell are flange-fit composite bodies, and why do they matter?

Here’s a quick Q&A — with myself — to help explain Wednesday’s news that NASCAR will move toward flange-fit composite bodies in the Xfinity Series:

Uh, what is this?

OK, so you know how all stock car bodies in NASCAR’s national series are made of one steel piece? NASCAR is looking to change that in the Xfinity Series by introducing something called flange-fit composite bodies.

I had to Google this, but a flange is basically an attachment, like a hook. And then composite describes the laminate material the body will be made of.

I don’t really get it. How’s that going to work, exactly?

There are now going to be 13 composite panels that make up an Xfinity Series body, held together by these flanges. Remember those 3D jigsaw puzzles? It’s kinda like that, from what I gather.

That’s crazy!!! Why in the world would NASCAR do that?

Racing is expensive and this is going to save teams some sweet, sweet cash in several different ways. Also, it should promote parity if it works.

OK. How and how?

The cost savings part is legit. Let’s say a car wrecks in practice and the body is pretty much junk, but the chassis is still good. Well instead of pulling out a backup car, now the team can just take the damaged panel off and put a new one on. And if there’s a crash during the race, it will be way less of a time suck to just replace the panels as opposed to hanging a new steel body on the chassis once the team gets back to the shop.

As for parity? Well, everyone is going to be running the same panels and they are supposedly tamper-proof with security features that will prevent teams from manipulating them for aero advantages.

Can they change the panels during the race?

Nope, because the five-minute clock will still be in effect for crash damage and it would take too long to swap out the panels.

Huh. But the teams can’t possibly be on board with this, right?

NASCAR says they are. Officials say the teams have been asking for this and worked with NASCAR and the manufacturers on this project. And apparently NASCAR got some strong buy-in, because officials are expecting all but a few teams to run it at the first available opportunity — even though it’s optional.

When is that? You got this far down in the story and didn’t even say when this is all happening.

Sorry, my bad. It’s Richmond, Dover and Phoenix this fall, and then all races except for superspeedways next season.

Wait, back up a couple questions. Did you say this is optional? If so, why wouldn’t some teams keep running the steel bodies in the future?

As of right now, steel bodies likely offer a competitive advantage over composite bodies because teams can manipulate them right up to the edge of the rules.

But in the near future, that may not be the case. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Senior Director of R&D, hinted there would be competition restrictions on the steel bodies that would make them heavier and take the incentive away to use them next year.

Clearly, NASCAR wants composite bodies to be the wave of the future.

Oh. So they’re coming to Cup then, probably.

Eh, maybe. But NASCAR won’t say that and wouldn’t go there on Wednesday. Officials insist they’re “100 percent focused” on seeing how it works in Xfinity first.

And by the way, NASCAR says fans won’t be able to tell the difference between a steel car and a flange/composite car by just watching from the stands or on TV.

Interesting. Well, it doesn’t sound all bad. Did NASCAR do something right?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least it seems that way on first glance.

Just Ban Them Already

Jan. 2011

Rule: NASCAR announces drivers must “pick a series” in order to run for a championship.

Quote: “We think it’s worth it in order to promote and create more of a clearer understanding on the difference between Sprint Cup and Nationwide races or Camping World races. The attention and the identity of the developing drivers we think is expedited with this move.” — Mike Helton.

Jan.  2016

Rule: NASCAR announces the 16 Chase drivers from 2015 are ineligible to run the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in order to put an emphasis on Xfinity and Truck regulars in the new championship race format.

Quote: “Many people like the idea that it’s unique that our best drivers get to compete with our up‑and‑coming drivers. Others, not so much. But we like it in general. It’s part of who we are. …. So we’ve had to modify it a little bit, of course, with changing the formats around. But generally speaking, that’s kind of where we stand.” — Brian France.

Oct. 2016

Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in 10 Xfinity events and seven Truck events in 2017, but cannot compete in any playoff races or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races. In addition, drivers who get Cup points (regardless of experience level) cannot compete in the Xfinity or Truck races at Homestead.

Quote: “The updated guidelines will elevate the stature of our future stars, while also providing them the opportunity to compete against the best in professional motorsports. These updated guidelines are the result of a collaborative effort involving the entire industry, and will ultimately better showcase the emerging stars of NASCAR.” — Jim Cassidy.

Today

Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in seven Xfinity events and five Truck events in 2018, but none of the playoff races, regular season finale or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races — a limit which also now extends to all Cup drivers regardless of experience level.

Quote: “Fans have made it clear that they want to see the future stars of the sport racing against their peers in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. These guidelines achieve that and preserve limited opportunities for developing drivers to compete against the best in motorsports.” — Jim Cassidy.

In the future, maybe next year

Rule: Another baby step toward solving the problem instead of actually just banning Cup drivers from running lower-series races altogether.