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Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
In the drivers’ meeting prior to the Pepsi 400 at Daytona on July 1, 2006, the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, called the President of NASCAR “Big Mike” (Helton) and said he’d heard that what goes on in the Nextel Cup hauler “is sometimes more exciting than what happens in the race itself.”
Some would say a parallel could be made with the inner workings of the Bush White House. Cheney certainly meant his remark as a wry compliment.
Is NASCAR’s administration of Nextel Cup races sometimes marked by judgment calls that are subjective and capricious? The short answer is yes. A case can be made that circumstance is as crucial a factor as what actually happens. The rules seem to be influenced significantly by timing, the relative prominence of the competitors involved and the effect on the outcome.
On July 23, 2006, at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, the champion of the previous season, Tony Stewart, appeared to intentionally wreck rookie Clint Bowyer. Replays showed Stewart shaking his fist at Bowyer as his car bored into Bowyer’s. Stewart received nothing more than a one-lap penalty for aggressive driving. He wound up finishing seventh in the race. Bowyer wound up 41st, but the big loser was the racing equivalent of an innocent bystander. Carl Edwards watched the developing storm in front of him, but not closely enough to avoid the crash that resulted from it. Edwards placed 39th.
Later, during a caution period, Edwards’ mangled Ford drove up alongside Stewart’s Chevrolet. Edwards raised both hands, palms opened upward, in a gesture routinely translated as “what were you doing?” Stewart’s response was another gesture easily translated, though not in family publications. This so enraged Edwards that he rammed Stewart’s car on pit road.
None of this drew any punitive action from NASCAR officials.
This precedent failed to benefit driver Jeff Green on Sept. 9 in the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway. On lap 252 of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, Green tangled on-track with the eventual champion, Jimmie Johnson. Later Green retaliated. As in the case of Stewart at Pocono, Green’s ill will seemed obvious. Officials “parked” Green’s car, which is to say it wasn’t allowed back on the track.
Stewart was, at the time of the Pocono incident, a contender; Green, who wound up 28th in the point standings, wasn’t.
“In a perfect world, every car on the track is a number and not a person,” says NASCAR’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, Jim Hunter. “Every car should be judged as a number. The perception of how that goes down gets sort of interwoven with fans and people who have favorite drivers who are often reading something into something that isn’t really there.”
Hunter conceded that reputations invariably play a role, citing the example of the late baseball great Ted Williams, who is said to have rarely been called out on strikes because of his prodigious reputation.
“If he were any other player, that would be a third strike,” says Hunter. “The guys in the tower — Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton, John Darby, David Hoots and Steve O’Donnell — everybody tries to make the right decision. No matter what that decision is, it’s going to be met with some criticism, depending on what side of the fence you’re on. If a guy’s tires are really worn, there will be the claim that there’s a piece of debris in turn three, and they (the officials) have to respond and make a decision whether there is debris or there isn’t. Sometimes it winds up being a piece of aluminum or plastic or something.”
“NASCAR has a really tough job,” says Jeff Burton. “At the end of the day, if NASCAR penalizes someone every time they hit someone or spin someone out and somebody wrecks, then we become afraid to be aggressive. They walk a fine line. They’ve got to decide what is the line, and it’s tough. You can’t watch two cars and always know the whole story. I’m pleased that NASCAR does the best it can under a very tough situation. That’s the best way I can say it.
“I don’t think they always make the right call, but as challenging as the situation is that they’re trying to police — because they can’t always truly understand all the factors that go into driving a car and understand why this car caught that car at a certain place, all those things — they do a nice job of balancing that. … If you look at it as a whole and you look at how complex and difficult it is, I’m extremely pleased with what they do. I think the drivers are ultimately responsible. NASCAR is there to make us wish we did the right thing. It’s our responsibility to do the right thing.”
“Trust me,” adds Stewart, “NASCAR has a difficult job to do, and sometimes its decisions are hard to understand when you look at one particular incident. It can be frustrating — and it’s been frustrating to me, at times — but over the long haul, they’re fair. Sometimes what they do is hard to understand, but taken as a whole, they’ve got the best interests of everybody at heart.”
The seeming inconsistencies in NASCAR penalties have become more noticeable and controversial in recent years, but the management style is as old as the ruling body itself.
In NASCAR’s very first race, on June 19, 1949, on a three-quarter-mile dirt track near Charlotte, N.C., a driver from nearby Gastonia, Glenn Dunnaway, took the checkered flag, but the victory was overturned, officially because a wedge had been placed in the rear springs to stiffen them, but unofficially because NASCAR founder William H.G. France didn’t want a moonshiner winning his first race. The man declared the winner, Jim Roper, was from Halstead, Kan., and thus unlikely to have been a moonshiner.
Dunnaway died in 1964, but according to his son Harold, his father went to Big Bill France’s hotel room at the Alamo Plaza, told France that he had won the race and demanded his money. According to the driver’s son, France paid him in cash, though it was never publicly acknowledged.
Fast forward a little over a year, to Sept. 4, 1950. In the first Southern 500, winning driver Johnny Mantz was driving a car that won principally because its heavy-duty truck tires didn’t wear out like the car tires used by everyone else. What did the Ford driven in 1949 by Dunnaway have in common with the Plymouth driven in 1950 by Mantz? In both cases, the listed owner was Hubert Westmoreland. In 1950, however, Mantz’s car was actually co-owned by three men: Westmoreland, NASCAR starter and flagman Alvin Hawkins and William H.G. France. After the race, NASCAR’s chief inspector declared the winning car illegal (they didn’t know about the word “unapproved” in those days, obviously) because of the truck tires. France fired the inspector, and the victory stood.
Examples from the 2006 season were numerous. Here are just a few:
• At Bristol, on March 26, Robby Gordon felt he had been penalized unfairly involving a so-called “commitment-line” violation entering pit road, so he expressed his opinion. NASCAR officials promptly held him in the pits for a lap “so he could cool down.”
Gordon’s language was mild compared to an outburst by Greg Biffle after he was penalized for speeding on pit road in the same race.
“I want to know where in the rulebook it says I can’t voice my opinion,” says Gordon, who was penalized a second time for an alleged “similar infraction” later in the race. He wasn’t, however, penalized for chewing gum, even though he admitted he didn’t have enough for the whole class.
• Perhaps the season’s most controversial event was the four-race suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus, who ended up winning the Nextel Cup championship with driver Jimmie Johnson, prior to the Daytona 500. No points were deducted from either Johnson’s driver or owner points.
What has been somewhat overlooked since was the fact that another team, Hall of Fame Racing and driver Terry Labonte, received 25-point deductions for a violation at almost the same time. Why would NASCAR officials penalize one team, but not another, in this manner for a similar violation? The official explanation, which seemed a bit contrived, was that Hall of Fame Motorsports had used a part that was clearly illegal, while in the case of Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson and Knaus), legal parts were used to achieve an illegal result.
Twenty-five points taken away from Terry Labonte meant very little as a practical matter, since Labonte did not intend to run the full schedule. Johnson wound up winning the championship by a 56-point margin.
• At the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (Charlotte) on May 26, Jeremy Mayfield’s Dodge flunked post-race inspection. Crew chief Chris Andrews received a $35,000 fine, and Mayfield and owner Ray Evernham had 25 points taken away. That violation wasn’t publicly divulged on the night it occurred. Officials never acknowledged the violation had even occurred until two days afterward, though there were reports in the garage that something was amiss.
• After the same race, Kyle Busch received a $50,000 fine and a loss of 25 points for a tantrum in which he threw his HANS device, a safety apparatus, at another driver he blamed for a crash.
• On Sept. 17 at New Hampshire, a television report, aired on Speed TV, alleged that officials had discovered something wrong with the winning car of Kevin Harvick. NASCAR officials never acknowledged that any violation had occurred, but the controversy prompted owner Richard Childress to issue a statement a week later:
“Reports in the media, specifically on Speed TV, that one or more of our Nextel Cup Series teams was found by NASCAR to be manipulating the rules … at New Hampshire International Speedway, are false and misleading. Our cars passed post-race inspection, and officials at NASCAR assured us … that no one from RCR was told at any time not to bring a part back to the race track. The reported events and conversations did not happen.”
“If you put credence in that story, in that notion, then NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing are in a conspiracy against everyone else in the sport,” says Burton, another of Childress’s drivers.
• An infrequent competitor, Ted Christopher, began that same New Hampshire race, the first in the Chase, sitting in his Chevy on pit road. NASCAR officials held him there because his spotter did not show up for duties. They wouldn’t let him onto the track until a spotter appeared. Eventually Christopher joined the fray four laps behind.
The reason for the spotter’s absence was an electrical outage at the track. The race began with NASCAR’s timing-and-scoring apparatus running only by emergency generators. The spotter was trapped in an elevator en route to the spotters’ stand.
Would such a costly penalty have been issued one of the championship contenders, or even a regular driver from a prominent team? Very unlikely.
• Pocono wasn’t the only venue where 2005 champion Stewart got a break. Officials failed to punish him for an apparent mistake early in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas on March 12.
At the drivers’ meeting, officials had warned drivers that they had to enter pit road to the inside of an orange cone placed at the entrance. After Ryan Newman’s crash on lap 91 brought out a caution flag, Stewart, running second at the time, hit that very cone as he trailed Mark Martin into the pits.
Inexplicably, no penalty was assessed. A television report offered the explanation that Stewart wasn’t punished because the cone wasn’t in its approved place atop a yellow line defining the pit entrance.
Had the same mistake been made by, say, Chad Chaffin, there almost certainly would’ve been a penalty.
• Also at New Hampshire, this time in July, the crew of driver Scott Riggs changed a transmission before qualifying. Officials decreed that Riggs, whose qualifying run was 23rd-fastest, had to start at the back of the field.
At Pocono a week later, Johnson crashed his car in practice and had to use an entirely different car in qualifying. He did not have to start at the back of the field, but rather 15th. Johnson went on to finish sixth in the Pennsylvania 500.
According to Cup series director John Darby, Riggs’ penalty was due to the fact that his team changed a component “within the same car” and Johnson would face no penalty because his team switched to an entirely new car.
“If teams weren’t able to change things in a backup car,” says Darby, “it would force all teams to bring two completely brand-new, race-ready cars.”
Almost all the teams, of course, do that anyway.
• Robby Gordon, seen by some as a whipping boy of NASCAR’s, received a $15,000 fine — and a loss of 50 points — for allegedly hurling a piece of roll-cage foam out the window of his Chevrolet during an Atlanta race on Oct. 29.
Gordon was apparently trying to bring out a caution flag for debris in a desperate attempt to pit without losing a lap. Gordon’s car had suffered unexpected tire failure.
On the other hand, it is widely believed that NASCAR officials themselves use the occasional “debris caution” to prop up competition and give a break to prominent drivers.
Debris cautions seldom occur at tracks like Darlington and Bristol, this in spite of the fact that the narrow racing grooves are almost always full of all sorts of clutter. Watching the field roar through the tight turns at those tracks reveals roiling clouds of rubber, grit and gosh knows what else. Oil-soaked pimento cheese, perhaps.
For some reason, the wide-open tracks like Michigan and California, which also happen to be tracks where the leader tends to run away from the field, are presumably laden with dangerous debris that’s often spotted by NASCAR officials at precisely the point at which the lead exceeds, say, three seconds, and the field is almost evenly distributed around the track.
On Sept. 4, at California Speedway, out of seven caution flags, four were for debris or oil on the track. At Bristol on Aug. 26, debris was cited in one out of 10 caution periods. On March 26, debris figured in two of the 18 cautions at the same track.
Few knowledgeable observers would dispute the notion that NASCAR artificially manipulates the competition in such a manner on a fairly regular basis, although officials have never admitted that.
“People tend to believe we throw a caution to bunch up the field,” says Hunter. “The overall philosophy is to be safe instead of sorry. If we throw a caution when we don’t really need one, if there’s any doubt, we’re going to throw the caution. In my opinion, people can’t argue with that. Is that steel or plastic? Sometimes we don’t know what it is, but if it’s in the groove or just outside, we throw the caution. If you’re in the sport long enough, some of those calls will go for you and some will go against you.
“The officials do the best job they can and let the chips fall where they may. Today you’re on the wrong end; next week you might be on the right end. In the end, I think, regarding the ability to officiate the races, it’s the responsibility or prerogative of the competitors to put pressure on NASCAR if they feel the officials are not doing a good job. Our competitors don’t hesitate to do that, sometimes rightly so and sometimes because of how it may have affected an individual. … Our officials are human. In the end, they’ve got to make more good calls than bad calls. If they didn’t … then we’d have a problem.”
NASCAR’s stewardship of the sport has changed in at least 1,000 ways — one of which is that victories are never overturned anymore as occurred frequently in the early years — but in at least 100 ways, it remains exactly the same. In a sport that cries out for at least 1,000 rules, NASCAR insists on 100, at most, and there is really only one that matters.
What NASCAR says goes.
“This sport has a tremendous amount of things that aren’t in writing,” says Burton. “They’re in your head or someone else’s head, but people have differing opinions about what is acceptable. The harder that you run and the more aggressive you are, your code is going to be different than another guy. That’s just how it is.
“In a sense, you can’t expect NASCAR to judge everyone on the basis of everything being completely equal because nobody else does that, either.”
Harvick still has his doubts.
“I think it’s a matter of what mood they’re in when they’re sitting in the booth that night, to be honest with you.”