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RCR's 150-point penalty may be 20 years in the making
by Vito Pugliese
A funny thing happened while Richard Childress was on his way to the penalty hearing Thursday for his No. 33 Sprint Cup team. Well, it wasn’t really funny. If anything it was downright insulting to the entire RCR organization. That being, the decision regarding its appeal of the 150-point penalty following a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway had, in his mind, been made days earlier. The appeals committee refuted the claims of an accident reconstruction engineer citing telemetry readings, successful template fitting, and irregularities with both rear quarter panels — not just the left rear that was originally the catalyst for all the commotion.
So certain of this outcome was Childress that he came with not only hat in hand, but checkbook as well, set to take the matter further up the ladder, all the way to the Supreme Court of NASCAR, chief appellate officer John Middlebrook.
The meeting with Middlebrook, a former GM executive and employee of almost 50 years (note: General Motors has been an RCR sponsor for nearly 30 years) will be Childress’ last ditch effort to rescind the 150-point fine and suspensions of crew chief Shane Wilson and car chief Chad Haney.
It also helps bide some time to help driver Clint Bowyer and the rest of the No. 33 team advance a little further in the Chase, although after last weekend’s disaster in Dover, this bunch is going to require the type of miracle that usually qualifies one for sainthood to have a prayer at contending for anything other than battling Matt Kenseth for last in the Chase standings.
Many have called the penalty and resulting appeal decision an injustice, the heavy hand of NASCAR making an example out of a team that rallied to make the final spot in the Chase during the final few weeks of the regular season. Others, however, view it as NASkarma taking a roundabout journey two decades later.
Twenty years ago, Childress and Dale Earnhardt were locked in a six-month back-and-forth battle for the 1990 Winston Cup with a relative NASCAR newcomer from the North in Jack Roush and a Midwestern short tracker who was getting his second shot at the big time, Mark Martin. After Roush and Martin won in their second career race together at Richmond, Childress protested the win, claiming Martin had a carburetor spacer plate that was too high and that said plate was bolted rather than welded to the intake manifold. This was an interesting item to protest, seeing as a NASCAR official’s hands physically contacted the area in question no less than three times that weekend — during practice, qualifying, and post-race tear down — and a half-inch difference and bolts would be pretty visible to somebody with even poor eyesight.
No matter, Childress phoned in the complaint to then NASCAR President Bill France Jr., who was laid up at home with a pair of broken legs. As Roush recalls, France promised Childress he would make things right. After all, Childress and Earnhardt just lost the ’89 title to Rusty Wallace by all of 12 points a few months earlier.
What France did not know was that there was a technical bulletin issued that weekend that actually cleared Roush’s No. 6 Ford of any wrong doing. According to Roush, France was unaware of the bulletin, deemed it unclear, and reverted to the rulebook instead.
The 46-point penalty was, at the time, one of the largest in NASCAR history — over what was not really anything illegal — and would end up costing Martin and Roush the 1990 championship by 26 points. It would take Roush another 13 years before he would win his first title, while Martin abandoned the pursuit in 2007, only to be lured back for a few more opportunities a couple years later.
While Childress and Earnhardt may have been given a gift, it wasn’t clear that it would have any bearing on the title outcome. An incident later in the fall, however, most certainly did. At the Mello Yello 500 in Charlotte that October, there were only four races left to decide the championship, and Earnhardt trailed Martin by a mere 16 points. Martin had just out-dueled Earnhardt the week before at North Wilkesboro, taking the lead after Earnhardt dominated the event with 37 laps to go.
Neither driver was having much luck this day, though. Martin started sixth but never led a lap, eventually finishing 14th, three laps down and on seven cylinders. Earnhardt faired even worse. He rolled of 15th, never led a lap, and had a disastrous incident on pit road.
The Flying Aces were The Intimidator’s pit crew at the time, renowned for their excellence and speed of execution. Unfortunately, they did not secure the tires to the black No. 3 before Earnhardt exited his stall — mind you, this was in the day when there was no such thing as a pit road speed limit — and all four tires went flying off his leper-like Lumina. His car sat crippled, unable to move on the apron of Turn 1. Realizing the machine was immobile, the Goodwrench crew ran down pit road with a jack and tools in hand to work on the car out of the pit box — essentially on the racetrack.
Earnhardt would finish the day 25th, however no points penalty was issued for the crew ignoring a NASCAR official’s order to not run down pit road where cars would enter and exit at over 100 mph, and servicing the vehicle on the racetrack.
What would such a penalty bring today? Jimmy Watts, crew member for Marcos Ambrose was suspended for four races in 2009 for running into the tri-oval infield at Atlanta while retrieving a loose tire that had rolled away. So can you imagine if the entire crew went to go pit the car at the exit of Turn 4?
This year, following the second race at Richmond, the No. 33 RCR Chevrolet was ferreted off to the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C., for further deconstruction and evaluation. While not found illegal at the track, NASCAR made it clear to the RCR camp that it was not pleased with the trend that it had seen with their cars, and asked that the RCR camp back things down to stay within the rules that had been established for the mounting of the body on the chassis.
NASCAR has not been bashful about issuing fines for tinkering with the body since the CoT debuted in 2007. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points that year for issues related to the mounting brackets on the rear wing, while his crew chief cousin, Tony Eury Jr., was suspended for six events. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, was punished for having flared out fenders on the No. 48 at Sonoma later that year. He was fined $100,000 and also suspended for six races. Then again, Knaus had an adjustable rear window for Daytona 500 qualifying in 2006, so the flared fenders, in comparison, were really quite tame.
Upon leaving the appeal hearing Thursday in Concord, Childress said he was not surprised by the decision and that he understood how the appeals system was structured. The date of the appeal to Middlebrook has not been announced, however NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, who happened to be the crew chief on Martin’s Roush Ford that 1990 season, believes it will be early next week. The announcement could come in time for the weekend at Fontana or — how is this for a quirky coincidence — Charlotte.
132 appeals have been heard in NASCAR’s 62 years. The outcomes are as follows:
• 92 decisions upheld.
• 28 penalties reduced.
• 10 penalties overturned.
• 2 penalties increased.
If recent appeal results and the findings of the appeal committee Thursday is any indication how the ruling may pan out, Childress might just want to put a stop-payment on that check and worry about getting some new guys to cover for Wilson and Haney for the next month and a half.
Karma, they say, is a bi .. err, most unpleasant. Even more so when she shows up 20 years later.