They sure don't make those Cinderella slippers like they used to. It only took three days for Clint Bowyer's to break, his 12th-seed success quickly shattered by failing post-race inspection through a penalty that sent shards of glass through a Richard Childress Racing team now stabbed in the heart. A shocking revelation, Bowyer's No. 33 Chevy failed to meet their body tolerances actually didn't come at the track; it took a second, teardown inspection at the R&D Center to find the problem. But the last-minute NASCAR discovery pulled a nasty punch, one violation of Rule 20.3 carrying with it the sting of 150 driver points, 150 owner points, and two six-week suspensions (crew chief Shawn Wilson and car chief Chad Haney, respectively) that effectively kill off Bowyer's upset title bid before it begins. For the kicker, NASCAR pulled out a $150,000 fine for Wilson, the largest one we've seen since Carl Long's $200,000 whopper for an oversized engine last May. This type of gargantuan penalty just three days into the Chase has some far-reaching effects. Let's take a detailed look at what happened, who it affects, and how the playoffs are transformed from here on out ...
Unclear. Hours after the penalty announcement, NASCAR has refused to pinpoint specifics on what part of the car failed to meet specifications.
"It revolves around how the body of the car is located on the frame," said Sprint Cup Director John Darby, the closest he'd come before launching into techno jargon you'd need your local grad school engineer to interpret. "In all three coordinates, X, Y and Z, which is fore and aft, left and right, up and down."
What does that mean in English? In short, the car was constructed in a way outside the Car of Tomorrow's body tolerances, violating measurement guidelines ensuring a level playing field across the board. Since the rule in question, section 20.3, is actually a 16-page list of body specifications, it's impossible to go much deeper than that, frustrating considering the magnitude of how it alters the Championship Chase. Remember though, whether it created a performance advantage was inconsequential in NASCAR's eyes: Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton pulled a Switzerland in claiming "It's not for us to decide" while reemphasizing their job is simply to determine if someone broke the rules. The only clue in what really transpired comes in a statement from car owner Childress himself, where he puts the focus squarely on the left-rear of the car being too high.
"We feel certain that the cause of the car being out of tolerance by sixty thousandths of an inch, less than 1/16 of an inch, happened as a result of the wrecker hitting the rear bumper when it pushed the car into winner's circle," he said. "The rear bumper was also hit on the cool down lap by other drivers congratulating Clint on his victory. That's the only logical way that the left-rear of the car was found to be high at the tech center. We will appeal NASCAR's ruling and take it all the way to the NASCAR commissioner for a final ruling, if need be."
Clint Bowyer. No one suffers more from this mess than a driver who had nothing to do with how the car was built. As he said at a Hall of Fame appearance Wednesday, Bowyer's the wheelman, not the welder, and can't be held personally responsible for the car's construction. But faulty equipment still leads to a penalty for him, meaning any momentum built from an initial Chase victory dissipates in the face of numerous off-track appeals. While all suspensions are deferred until after those rulings, should they fail he'll wind up losing his two top crewmen for more than half the playoffs. The 150 points is already in effect, dropping him from second to 12th in the standings, 185 behind Denny Hamlin and in need of a miracle to climb back into contention. It's a shame, too, considering the next two tracks beyond Dover shaped up well for a rising star that's finished in the top-5 in points each year of the Chase. Now, even 10th might be a reach, an awkward reminder that NASCAR is a sport in which team mistakes off the track often affect the driver on it.
Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer's car owner takes a 150-point hit in the owner standings, sure, but the issues run much deeper if his excuse of the tow truck is merely a cover-up. It's hard to make a call either way, but let's not forget NASCAR brought Childress and other team principals in last week after discovering their Richmond car came dangerously close to missing their body tolerances. In that instance, the sport claimed the car was legal but warned Childress of the "danger zones" so that the team could make the necessary fixes in time for Sunday's race -- making these actual violations all the more confusing (we'll get to that in a minute). But let's assume for a minute RCR did make a mistake. While NASCAR claimed they've found no issues with Childress' team cars, Kevin Harvick or Jeff Burton, all three rolled out new chassis Sunday that were likely constructed in the same basic tolerances before each individual crew chief went off and made adjustments. So the risk remains that other cars will have to be replaced across the board, especially in the Bowyer camp in a manner similar to when the organization realized basic parts on their Car of Tomorrows were welded wrong in 2009 -- one of several issues that caused a severe downturn in performance. Either way, if Childress loses on appeal the loss of both the crew chief and car chief for Bowyer distracts from the other two title-contending organizations. A fine line has to be drawn the next couple of days to ensure Burton and Harvick get protected from the long line of public distractions that follow, otherwise a title bid for all three is as dead as that LeBron James mural up in Cleveland.
Ryan Newman. The odd man out in this year's Chase field, Newman and Stewart-Haas Racing have to be scratching their heads over why NASCAR would "wag the finger" at a car that "almost" failed inspection. Had that 150-point penalty been assessed a week earlier, Bowyer would have been knocked out of and Newman into a Chase field he'd have a serious chance to contend in. Armed with four straight top-11 finishes, you've got to bet this team is privately peppering NASCAR with questions about what constitutes a warning versus an actual infraction.
Denny Hamlin. Since Bowyer was second in the standings, Hamlin's lead now increases to 45 points over Harvick, the lead RCR threat for the title. That's important, considering the Monster Mile is his worst track on the circuit and consistently his Chase Achilles' Heel. But Harvick has a poor track record there, too, so as long as Hamlin runs around 10th or so he's virtually guaranteed to leave with the point lead. Considering he was looking to be within 60-80 points of the top spot after two races, that's pretty good for the best bet to take down the sport's four-time reigning champ.
Jimmie Johnson. On the stat sheet, the penalty has little effect on Johnson, who simply moves up to sixth, 92 behind. But that's one less obstacle for the No. 48 to leap over, pumped with the knowledge main rival Harvick could also be potentially distracted. Most importantly, though, they'll be paying particular attention to exactly what went wrong with the No. 33, one year after their own car was warned for being dangerously close to not passing tolerance. Crew chief Chad Knaus, the master of the gray area, can go ask inspectors about it, see the problem firsthand and have a greater knowledge of what NASCAR is focusing on in terms of crossing the line. Add in losing the spotlight after the post-New Hampshire storylines boomed "Is Jimmie Done?" and hiding in the corner can only be a good thing for this program that's the master of gray areas and getting into their opponents' heads.
NASCAR. As the severity of the penalty settles in, the questions surrounding it won't dissipate anytime soon for a sanctioning body often accused of selective officiating. First and foremost, why didn't they strip Bowyer of the win? Under this new system, if the car is illegal how can you justify a victory towards a car that shouldn't have competed? It's a whole lot different than Reggie Bush losing the Heisman for taking money from agents; the actual on-field "equipment" Bowyer used was faulty, like if he put booster jets on his sneakers to give him extra speed returning a punt.
"I think that going back to the points penalty, you know, at some point in time I think that you will see it continue to rise and you may even see it be more than what you can even gain by starting a race," Pemberton said in defense of that question. "It could get into the 200-point category at some point in time."
That's a good deterrent, but it also doesn't change the record book or put an asterisk next to the victory. It's the same problem other sports have (think Bonds, steroids, home runs) but one that NASCAR appears to sidestep rather than directly address it.
Here's the second, more important issue fans are struggling to come to grips with: How can a car get penalized after the race has been over for 48 hours?
"We do our final post-race inspection on Tuesdays," explained Pemberton "It's not any different than if we were at 9:00 at night on a Sunday night, tore an engine down, and would find it to be big. By then the fans have gone, they've left the racetrack, and they understand the winner is the winner."
Hmm. But the difference is compared to stick 'n' ball sports, compared to the instant gratification of replays overturning calls you're asking people to wait until midweek until you get a bunch of measuring sticks out of your toolbox, then believe your unsupervised conclusions that a car trekked 1,000 miles from the track is suddenly illegal. Anyone else see some sort of disconnect there? I always knew we'd have a major issue once inspection got moved away from the track, and while the R&D Center is a public facility it still carries an air of secrecy surrounding it the sport has to address.
Childress has already filed an appeal, sent to the National Stock Car Racing Commission with a date to be determined. If that three-member voting panel votes to reverse the decision, the matter is settled; otherwise, they can appeal to the sport's U.S. Supreme Court, the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, former GM executive John Middlebrook.
For Bowyer, he'll have to slog through the next nine races with nothing but wins and revenge on his mind.
And for fans, most of which have already sent a message with a shocking 28 percent decrease in ratings at Loudon, are left scratching their heads a bit. Nobody wants a championship decided on a penalty, especially within a system no one's all that wild about to begin with. So it's hard to see NASCAR painted in any other light than the bad guy, even though in this case they might actually be looked down on for doing the right thing, keeping order within a sport where crossing the line was once a weekly ordeal.