Opinion: NASCAR's disqualification policy was long overdue but likely won't change the culture
There's a new sheriff in NASCAR Town, but it's really just the same sheriff with a different colored hat.
Hang with me for a minute.
NASCAR's recent decision to begin implementing disqualifications for postrace technical infractions was met with widespread applause, as it should be. But it will not, and shouldn't, change the work crew chiefs have done in recent years.
That's to say that you can probably expect a handful of disqualifications this year, even to a couple of flagged winners, based on the number of L1 and L2 penalties handed out over the past half-decade or so.
Not much has changed in the severity of the penalties from year to year. That's because in years past, a top finisher found to be in violation of the rules would have lost everything but the win in name only.
No win bonus, a heavy points penalty, fines and crew chief suspensions. The only thing that was missing from the equation was stripping the win itself.
And again, that was a good move.
I come from a short track world where this policy is commonplace. The most notorious technical inspector in the country, Ricky Brooks, whom we spotlighted in a previous edition of Autoweek magazine, has had no hesitation tossing the biggest names in stock car racing if they were not in compliance with the rules.
It's great because fans can take solace in knowing that the record books will always indicate, from this moment forward, that the listed winner was the first to have passed inspection.
No asterisk. No cucumber. No doubt.
Well, mostly, anyway.
I say that because crew chiefs are still going to do everything they can to find loopholes in the rule book or glitches in the Optical Scanning Station, because that's what they are paid to do.
And fans need to be OK with that.
Much has been made of the perception that NASCAR has a rampant cheating culture, and that is something that has always bugged me.
Consider this from a September 2017 column that appeared in Autoweek:
Race events are more than something that take place from flag to flag on a given weekend. A race truly begins at the shop and continues into the garage. The metaphorical last lap of each event actually begins when teams take the green flag.
NASCAR provides a team rule book intended to create competition and a level playing field. But it's up to crew chiefs and engineers to exploit it and find the competitive edge that their rivals cannot.
That's not cheating -- it's racing.
That's not to say teams shouldn't be penalized or even tossed out for these infractions. They absolutely should. But this is an important matter of semantics. "Cheater" is an emotionally charged word and a borderline scarlet letter. When it's used irresponsibly, fans on the outside of the NASCAR community assume the industry is experiencing something similar to a baseball steroids scandal or cycling performance-enhancing drug controversy.
This isn't a blatant regard for cheating, but rather an attempt to get right up against the tolerances NASCAR sets without going over. It's been going on for 70 years. Teams have to try because the rules have become so thorough and their rivals are all trying to exploit the same areas. Choosing not to push those tolerances is the difference between a win or positing a mere top 15.
And I still feel this way.
Again, there are going to be teams that fail this year, because crew chiefs are still paid to "race" behind the scenes and in the garage area.
And when that team fails, applaud the system that strips them of the win and everything that comes with it because that's a just system. But be careful lamenting the so-called culture of cheating that doesn't vanish just because NASCAR is taking wins away.
Because when you do, you're unwittingly asking NASCAR to equally prepare the cars themselves and randomly assign them to "teams" when they arrive at the track. Why even bother having crew chiefs, crews or race shops at this point? Why celebrate brilliant mechanical minds like Dale Inman, Ray Evernham, Leonard Wood and Smokey Yunick?
NASCAR would become a celebrity driver series.
That's not NASCAR. It's IROC, something the sanctioning body is inching ever-closer to with the 2019 rules package as it is.
So once again, NASCAR should be praised for implemeting disqualifications. It's a long-overdue conclusion. But this shouldn't mean the end of teams working to circumvent the rulebook.
It just means the punishment for doing so is just ever more severe.
Game on, crew chiefs.