On the eve of the playoffs, Denny Hamlin's stirring victory at the Darlington Raceway has been declared encumbered by NASCAR due to some finagling in the rear suspension that likely gave him a faster car than his competition.
If a front-line team like Joe Gibbs Racing has one of its crews willing to risk fudging on the rules, is the sanctioning body's penalty system a sufficient deterrent to teams trying to win a championship?
Since he had already qualified for the playoffs with a previous victory, Hamlin will be one of the 16 drivers advancing after the season's final regular-season race Saturday night in Richmond. In this case, encumbered means that in addition to fines and loss of points, Hamlin will not get the five playoff bonus points usually awarded a winner.
Perhaps as significantly, a magnificent drive by Hamlin will be remembered for the wrong reasons. Give anyone in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series a slight advantage and the driver tends to suddenly look unbeatable. Michael Waltrip, for example, won only four Cup races and all of those wins took place on restrictor plate tracks during the time the DEI team had an acknowledged advantage -- (one considered legal) -- in horsepower.
Perhaps the discovery of irregularities in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota entry of Hamlin will deter such fudging once the playoffs begin at the Chicagoland Speedway. If a contending team is caught during the 10-race title run, it could very well spell the end of any chances of advancing to the all-important final round of the championship.
Historically, teams have always tried to find a way through inspection without necessarily adhering to the rules.
For the sanction body's first four decades, it was considered part of the sport. It is, after all, a test of mechanical ingenuity among other things. And there was, to some extent, honor among thieves when it came to stealing victory. If you could get your car past NASCAR before the race with a few illegalities, then have at it. It was the same option for everybody and part of the game.
But that approach can quickly escalate into something beyond getting a little advantage here and there.
Gary Nelson, the former rules enforcer for NASCAR, has told an interesting story about his days as a crew chief. Convinced that Junior Johnson was bribing the official in charge of weighing cars at the Riverside, Calif. track on the old wooden scales, Nelson resulted to some trickery of his own.
During a private test session, he hooked up a wire to the scales and buried it in the nearby sandy soil. When his cars were weighed prior to the race several weeks later, a crew member surreptitiously pulled the wire hard enough to make up for about 100 pounds of weight. Nelson's car thus entered the race 100 pounds light -- a significant advantage on the road circuit.
The present picture is different due to so many millions of dollars on the line that derive from corporate sponsorship. NASCAR's premier series now has major league status and outright cheating taints its championship.
Teams have expected NASCAR to maintain a level playing field and often found it frustrating when the sanctioning body was too dull or politically encumbered to make sure everybody was playing by the same rules. Nelson wasn't the first to take matters into his own hands due to frustration.
The best example of anger at NASCAR for falling down on the job occurred in 1983, when Maurice Petty used paraffin in his engine to skate past the electronic inspection device used to scan displacement before races. He knew other teams were also using the same tactic and decided to do something about it. If he thought NASCAR would handle the problem privately, his judgement was very mistaken.
Petty believed rival Junior Johnson was skirting the rules to gather points for Darrell Waltrip in the championship. By finishing second, the team collected near maximum points without worrying about a post-race inspection. When Richard Petty won the fall race in Charlotte with an oversize engine, the post-race inspection produced a major public scandal and a huge penalty for "The King." The fallout resulted in much stiffer penalties and manual inspection of several cars' engines after races.
The new rules, procedures and penalties cleared up the use of oversize engines very quickly and permanently.
That has not been the case with this year's use of the "encumbered finish" rule. The threat of losing points has not been enough to deter teams. Hamlin's loss of 35 driver and owner points and his crew chief for two races was the fifth violation bad enough to garner a Level 1 penalty. Each of the Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski (Phoenix) and Joey Logano (Richmond, Darlington) have been caught. Kevin Harvick's entry from Stewart-Haas Racing has also been penalized after his finish at Phoenix was declared encumbered.
With the current extensive post-race inspection process at the R&D Center -- which includes the first-place and second-place cars plus one other optional pick -- there seems to be little doubt about NASCAR's ability to catch those fudging on the rules. But are the penalties enough to deter teams?
Apparently not. This sets up the rather gut-wrenching scenario of a victory on Sunday being declared null and void three days later. Never mind!
NASCAR is caught between a sport driven by money and cars. If an entire team is suspended for one race instead of just the crew chief, suddenly the team's sponsor has been denied the opportunity to leverage its investment. Over time, this might encourage both team owners and sponsors to start looking outside NASCAR racing for opportunities to compete.
But if NASCAR really wants to eliminate the out-of-kilter idea of letting teams keep a sullied victory in the record book plus penalties, something more draconian is needed.