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Part 4 in a five-day series that chronicles the issues facing NASCAR
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles
7. Does NASCAR need to change its officiating style … and will it?
Like NASCAR, stick ’n’ ball sports aren’t immune to controversial calls. So why do stock car officials wind up with the worst rap? Simple: visual aides. NFL challenges, MLB instant replay on home runs and NBA shot clocks can help tell us whether a decision is right or wrong, leading to endless and exciting debates at the office the next day.
How can racing fans do that with, say, a season finale in which Kevin Harvick was busted for speeding, then accused Jimmie Johnson of sneaking by without so much as a warning? No media member or fan gets a look at pit road times, and all we see is a bunch of cars charging real slowly on the screen towards pit out. NASCAR refuses to publicly release those times, just like it won’t adequately explain a rules violation from Clint Bowyer that contains a top line that would make any politician proud.
Behold, Section 20-3: “The car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis does not meet the NASCAR-approved specifications.”
What specifications? What tolerances? What in the world does that mean? You’d have to go through 16 pages to find out, in a rulebook not every Joe Schmo on the street can access. Considering NASCAR’s inauspicious history with penalty calls – just look at some of these other questions in the book for proof – it’s no surprise that this breeds suspicion in a transparent world where WikiLeaks, Facebook and Deadspin feed the public’s desire to know.
For generations, that’s how the France family has run NASCAR, a family-owned dictatorship with more secrets than Nixon and Watergate. But that needs to stop, pronto, if the sport wants to stop the bleeding of angry fans and nose-diving attendance. It’s time to drop the act, open the books and work to ensure that fans can believe in the legitimacy of officials’ calls.
And while the Boyer penalty is fresh on our minds …
8. How can Whitney Motorsports cheat twice and get 50-point penalties each time while Clint Bowyer’s team does so once, gets 150 points, four-race crew and car chief suspensions that essentially knocked it out of last season’s Chase?
OK, so let’s get this one straight: NASCAR needs a laser, three geeks from Revenge of the Nerds and 48 hours of nitpicking at the R&D Center to figure out if Clint Bowyer’s car is out of tolerance. Whitney Motorsports, a small, single-car outfit whose hobbies include start-and-parking, has not one but two instances discovered at the track. First, parts of the engine were found illegal at New Hampshire in September – the same weekend Bowyer was penalized. Then, at Talladega one month later, lower A-arms were discovered with buckshot inside, an old Junior Johnson trick to realign the weight inside the car.
Surely, if Bowyer got such hefty consequences, and Carl Long was docked 200 points/$200,000 with an oversized engine in 2009, poor Whitney would find itself setting the wrong kind of records, right?
To understand why Whitney gets off the hook, look no further than last year’s car count. Only 30 fully-funded teams were left; the back half of the garage so poor that even operations set up to start-and-park as a business were (and continue to be) closing up shop. Getting to 43 cars each week, even with field-fillers, is going to be a difficult task on some weekends, particularly on long roads trips like Phoenix and California, putting the sport in jeopardy of losing precious TV money without full fields. That means that imposing a $500,000 fine for cheating and killing off a team like Whitney, whose small operation was even putting two cars out there at times to close 2010, could cheat NASCAR out of millions over the long-term.
So the little guy escapes, a rarity in this sport, while Bowyer and the big-money Richard Childress Racing operation gets the equivalent of the death penalty for a shoplifting offense that most likely wasn’t (and isn’t) confined to just this one team. And the rest of us? We sit and wonder when the hypocrisy will finally stop.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro