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 Sonoma race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Trick Play

Rodney Childers climbed down from the pit box with his headset still on, bent down to tie his shoes and tapped the button on his radio.

“I kind of let everybody down,” he told driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team.

“All good,” Harvick replied. “Always want to win, but that stuff happens.”

“That stuff” was getting duped by an unusual case of trickery that likely cost Harvick the race on Sunday.

Here’s how it went down.

The No. 4 was the fastest car — as has been the case so often this season — with Martin Truex Jr. as the second best.

With that in mind, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn pulled off an Oscar-worthy performance to try and lure Harvick into the pits. He told Truex to pit and had the crew jump on the wall like a pit stop was about to happen, then called Truex off.

It didn’t work the first time. So then Pearn tried it again — he told Truex to pit, then reversed the call before Truex came down pit road. Truex had no idea what was going on (there was no code language or anything), but just knew to trust his crew chief.

This time, Pearn’s ploy worked. Childers — who was scanning the No. 78 team’s radio — took the bait and called Harvick to the pits earlier than originally planned, which opened the door for Truex to then stay out longer.

In turn, that gave Truex an advantage late in the race with fresher tires, which he used to easily pass Harvick.

“We’re in California — they went to acting school this week,” Truex said with a grin. “They were in L.A. for a couple days on the off weekend learning how to do screenplays and such.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said he was aware of what Pearn was trying to do and termed it as a “flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” call when it appeared the No. 4 car was going to win out if the race went green.

“Obviously the first time we called it, it didn’t work,” Garone said. “So it was really cool that we were able to call it the second time. What a great move by Cole.”

Pearn downplayed the move and said it was just a product of road-course racing. where a fake-out has a longer window of opportunity to work. Childers echoed that sentiment, saying road courses are the best place to try a move because “you’ve got time to react.”

Unfortunately for Childers, he did react — even though he had been determined not to let another team influence his strategy.

I’ve been preaching for two days to not worry about what everybody else was doing,” he said. “… We could have just turned the scanners off altogether and just ran our race. Probably would have been better off.”

Harvick, though, gave Childers his full support. He walked over to the crew chief and patted him on the back afterward, and the two spent several minutes speaking to one another.

“He shouldn’t beat himself up over a pit call,” Harvick said.

2. Fair game?

Was Pearn’s fake-out a cheap move? Childers didn’t think so at all and instead tipped his hat to the No. 78 team, even going to victory lane to offer his congratulations. As we’ve seen several times this season, the No. 4 team shares a mutual respect with both the Nos. 18 and 78 teams, which make up the big three contenders of the season (they’ve won 12 of the 16 races so far).

“That’s really why I like racing those guys the most — the 18 and the 78,” Childers said. “Those guys are really good at what they do. They make all of us better. And we make them better every week. It’s awesome what they did and I have to congratulate them for that.”

It’s refreshing that although the top three teams keep running up front together each week, there’s no bad blood between them. Sure, a bitter rivalry would be fun — very fun, actually. But it’s also cool to see the mutual respect and sportsmanship that exists.

After all, Pearn noted, they’re just playing a game.

“We have a great relationship,” Pearn said of Childers. “I respect him a lot, and I feel like he does the same. Him and Martin worked together back at MWR, so they’re good friends. I always try and congratulate them when they win, and he always does it when we win.

“There’s plenty of days where they’re going to be up. Kevin Harvick is an awesome race car driver, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to race them like we do.”

3. Unusually calm

There were the fewest “natural” cautions (yellow flags other than stage breaks or competition cautions) in track history on Sunday. The only yellow flag other than the end of Stages 1 and 2 was for AJ Allmendinger’s car on the track after he blew an engine.

So what’s up with that?

For one thing, drivers say the field has gotten more skilled at road racing. Truex pointed to the Xfinity and Truck Series running more road courses, which means the younger drivers have a chance to get used to that type of racing by the time they reach Cup. Meanwhile, the Cup guys have raised their game as well.

But another reason is stage racing. It’s had a profound impact on road courses because the races turn into more of a strategy play than a straight-up, head-to-head battle. When the field gets spread out while using various strategies, there’s less chance for a wreck and no one is pushing the issue.

Still, that doesn’t mean NASCAR needs to change anything or suddenly get rid of stages at road courses. It’s much better to have a consistent race format for each week of the season than get into the business of tweaking it at certain venues in the name of entertainment.

That might produce some Formula One-type races at times —where strategy seems to prevail over all else — but it’s not like it happens every week.

4. ‘Dinger’s Despair

We all know there are pretty much two shots for Allmendinger to make the playoffs each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. And while Allmendinger has a decent track record at the Glen, Sonoma has been a nightmare.

Something always seems to either break on the car or Allmendinger loses his cool when faced with mid-race adversity. That’s why the talented road racer has more career finishes of 35th or worse at Sonoma (five) than top-10 finishes (two).

In that sense, his team’s strategy Sunday was puzzling. With Allmendinger in agreement, the 47 team had its driver stay on track for stage points while the other leaders pitted late in Stage 1. Allmendinger ended up winning the stage and got 10 stage points — but for what?

The driver entered the race 23rd in points. He’s not racing for points; he’s racing for wins.

After that decision — with all his track position lost and now tasked with trying to come through the field — Allmendinger made a mistake, missed a shift and blew his engine.

Race over.

The whole sequence just didn’t make sense, and it turned into another deeply disappointing day for the ‘Dinger.

5. Points Positions

In this unusual NASCAR season — perhaps historically so, with the fewest winners through 16 races since 1978 — one item in the Top Five will be a weekly look at the point standings.

After all, this playoff field is shaping up to have the most drivers getting their playoff spots on points since the start of the Win-And-In Era.

With Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon outside the top 16 in the standings, that moves the cutoff position to 15th in points — which is currently Alex Bowman. He’s safe by 17 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and by 25 points over Paul Menard.

Erik Jones has a 13-point lead over Bowman (and thus a 30-point cushion to Stenhouse). After that, the cutoff isn’t really close because Chase Elliott is another 35 points ahead of Jones and therefore 65 points inside the cutoff.

The winless drivers who would make the playoffs right now are Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Bowman.

Kevin Harvick reacts to NASCAR penalty

Here are some highlights from Kevin Harvick’s media availability on Friday morning at Phoenix, where he addressed the penalty issued to his team this week.

— On his previous success at Phoenix:

“Nobody wants to talk about that. Let’s just go to the first question. They all have the stats.”

— On whether NASCAR issued a penalty in response to social media posts:

The car passed all the Optical Scanning Station inspections and everything after the race. The car was built to tolerance. The scary part for me is the fact that (NASCAR) went far enough to find something on the car at the NASCAR R&D Center. They could find something wrong with every car if they took it apart for a whole day at the R&D Center.

“The (incorrect) side skirt material is on us. That rule was put into place Feb. 18 and it should have been aluminum, but ours was steel. That is really kind of the meat of what gave them the ability to actually get the fine to where it was meaningful enough to appease everyone on social media.”

— On social media posts leading to NASCAR’s additional scrutiny:

“If you look at Atlanta, the car was there the week before. Same team, same window bracing, same roof, same side skirts, same everything. It was in the R&D Center the week before (for inspection). It has been there 49 times in three years. Technicalities.”

— On photos of other cars (some from races last year) with similarly dented roofs:

“If we want to officiate it with fan pictures, if you want to officiate it with pictures during the race and call people to pit road and do those types of things — from a NASCAR standpoint. I am fine with that. As long as it is consistent. As you can see from a lot of the pictures roaming around on the internet this week, it is not consistent.”

“You could have called the window attached to the brace penalty on 20 cars last week, easy.”

— On why seven playoff points were taken away if the penalty wasn’t big enough to suspend crew chief Rodney Childers:

“That is the other confusing part about the penalty. If it is such a big deal, why is my crew chief still here? I don’t understand that.”

— On the penalty detracting from the conversation about racing:

“As a sport, you don’t want to be talking about penalties. We are right back to where we were with the LIS machine and all the conversations we had about that. The conversations that went away (because of the new Optical Scanning Station) are now right back into play. We have an encumbered win.”

— On how to stop social media from influencing penalties:

“Keep your executives off of it during the race.”

— On the impact of the penalty:

“It just motivates us. I can’t wait to win another race and jump up and down in victory lane on the back of my car.”


Column: Why nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s penalty

Nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s post-Vegas penalty

Welp, here we go again.

Kevin Harvick’s dominating Las Vegas win was ruled encumbered on Wednesday. Technically it wasn’t “encumbered” because NASCAR got rid of that term in the offseason — but the result is the same.

The No. 4 car’s rear window was not rigid at all times, as the rulebook states it must be, and the rocker arm panel extension was the wrong kind of metal (it is supposed to be aluminum).

So Harvick lost all seven playoff points he earned at Vegas. On top of that, the team also lost car chief Cheddar Smith for two races, Rodney Childers lost $50,000 from his wallet and Harvick lost 20 points in the standings.

That’s a lot of losing, but the team kept the win. NASCAR tradition, right? That’s what they say, anyway. So SHR will cash the check and display the trophy alongside all the others, and Harvick will go down as the winner in the history books.

Normally, this is the part where I would argue Harvick should be stripped of the win. An illegal car should not be able to keep a victory, and it looks bad when NASCAR allows this to happen.

When I asked readers about this last September, most agreed.

But I’m not going down that road this time, for a couple reasons.

First, diving back into the same argument over and over is just…exhausting. Second, this instance seems a little different than some of the others.

Harvick’s car has been so fast over the last couple races, it seems hard to believe a dented rear window could have contributed that much speed. Did it help? Probably. Was it the reason he won? Admittedly I have a lack of technical knowledge here, but I would argue no.

Same goes for the rocker arm panel extension. Was having it made out of steel instead of aluminum why Harvick won? Seems highly unlikely.

Still, for the sake of being consistent with my own stance (illegal cars should not win!), I guess NASCAR should probably have taken the victory away.

But…ugh. I just can’t get fired up about this one. In this case, stripping the win would have felt like sending someone to jail for a broken tail light.

I suppose NASCAR had to do something, and the something is better than nothing, but maybe it should come down to either doing nothing or taking away everything.

Otherwise, it feels half-assed, and I’m not sure how outraged we’re all supposed to be here.

Sigh. I’ve come to really hate weeks like these.