Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 28th, 2010

Pop quiz! What do these three NASCAR-related things have in common: swearing on national television, coming in too low during post-race inspection, and the body tolerance being too high on your left-rear by 1/16th of an inch?

The answer comes in the form of three penalties that affected drivers racing in the Chase for the Championship. Those are the only times in seven years the sanctioning body has stripped points in the playoffs, but the severity and circumstances of each teach us just how far this sport has to go in its battle to achieve consistency and credibility with its decisions in the public eye.

Let's take Item No. 1, tagged to Dale Earnhardt Jr. back when he was actually a championship contender, not a constant target for critics. After winning a Talladega race in fall 2004, Earnhardt was interviewed on live television about what his fifth victory at the track meant to him. "It don't mean s--- right now," he said, sending the censors scrambling, though it was already too late. "Daddy's won here 10 times."

That slipup didn't just cost him a fine, but also 25 points, upheld on appeal in a ruling that's hotly debated to this day. It's one thing if you're driving an illegal car, but swearing?! Could you imagine if Kurt Busch had won the title that year by 24 points or fewer over Earnhardt, meaning Junior would have lost millions and a Cup Series trophy by nothing more than a potty mouth. Some say that incident deflated the then-No. 8 team, which never recovered in the title race and wound up fifth.

Three years later, Carl Edwards received the same penalty, but for a car-related inspection problem: his No. 99 Ford was measured too low at the track. In that instance, the measurement failure actually would have caused a performance disadvantage on the track, but in upholding a 25-point appeal, the committee made an important statement we're bound to hear on Wednesday. "Whether this constituted an advantage, disadvantage or otherwise does not alter the fact that the car failed to meet the rules." Still, that penalty seemed more appropriate for the crime, albeit a head-scratcher that you could get the same thing for an equipment violation as for saying an expletive on national TV.

That brings us to the third Chase penalty, a left-rear body tolerance issue in which the car was outside the specifications by the equivalent of 15 pieces of notebook paper. It's led to an atmosphere off the track somewhere between a soap opera and a circus since the penalty was released on Wednesday.

The ruling came just one day after a weirdly timed "almost" story in which officials admitted the No. 33 car came close to failing the same degree of tolerance at Richmond the week before -- meaning this penalty, if granted there, would have completely knocked the team out of the Chase. Bowyer came into his Friday press conference with a six-point timeline laced with verbal slams toward NASCAR inspectors and any of his detractors. And that was only the beginning.

Championship leader Denny Hamlin laid out some accusations of his own -- claiming the No. 33 had been rumored to be cheating for months -- that ended with he and Bowyer's teammate Kevin Harvick first sideswiping each other, then nearly coming to blows off the track in practice while owner Richard Childress all but said Denny and Pepe Le Pew have been spending a little extra time together.

But when you step back from all the drama, it helps to take a look at the two previous infractions to gain perspective. Yes, NASCAR wants to make absolutely sure any violation of the rules is strictly enforced. It's important to keep integrity inside a playoff format that's already heavily criticized. But after two small incidents in two years, suddenly the organization runs the risk of destroying the championship chances of a team for an infraction that's highly debatable as to whether it even caused a performance advantage?

I talked to a handful of drivers and crew over the weekend, all of whom had a different take on an issue Bowyer rightfully claims, "80 percent of the media and fans don't understand." If there's that much debate, leaving so many people scratching their heads, is it really worth six times the penalty for a "too low" incident in 2007 that would seem to be just as marginal?

The bottom line is I just don't understand it, I don't see any consistency here, and I'm not sure I ever will. But not all of you agree, as we'll see with a long list of responses below; by the way, don't fail my inspection. Make your voice heard! Tbowles81@yahoo.com or NASCARBowles on Twitter is your lifeline to me... I promise I won't swear in public. Honest.

Let's get going...

This whole thing is really weird. Has NASCAR ever announced that a car "almost" failed inspection? It seems like kind of an odd time to do it at first.

Which leads to...conspiracy theory!!!

Assume for a moment that the No. 33 actually fell outside of the tolerance after Richmond. NASCAR would be faced with a penalty decision, but there would really only be two possible penalties: keep him out of the Chase or not penalize him at all. The reason being that, since the points reset, he would have started with 5000 points regardless of whether he got a 10 or a 100-point penalty. So NASCAR would have to decide to either a) assess a 143+ point penalty, kicking Bowyer out and letting Newman into the Chase, or b) assess a 141- point penalty, which wouldn't have had an impact. Obviously, the monetary fines and crew suspensions could still hold, but there was really no way to assess any kind of a middle ground penalty on the driver.

Is it possible that NASCAR simply didn't want to make a subjective decision that only had those two extreme options? Then, after New Hampshire, his car missed the same measurement in the same way, allowing them to assess a penalty that stings the driver and the team but doesn't force the sanctioning body to make a subjective decision on who gets into the Chase or not.

I am not gonna pretend that there are no holes in this theory, but who doesn't love a good smoke-filled room story?

-- Brian, Brookline, Mass.

I think you have a future career writing Tom Clancy novels, Brian. Get on it.

That's a very underreported issue, it seems, the "mystery warning" Bowyer got after Richmond that could have been a compromise that let his No. 33 into the Chase unfairly. But keep in mind it's not the first time teams have been warned, as Jimmie Johnson reminded us in the press room Friday.

"When you are warned, it is kind of a weird situation because, as a race team, that is your job to push it right up to the edge," he said, presumably referring to last fall's situation when Hendrick Motorsports was informed that two of its cars, Johnson's No. 48 and Mark Martin's No. 5, were "close" to failing specs. "So we've been there before and faced with the decision, you have to back off a little bit."

Of course, such warnings muddy the issue of just what is legal and what is not. As I explained on Thursday, it's not like referees stop football games to tell offensive linemen they're "awfully close" to a false start. Giving some teams a heads-up they're getting close over others who don't get that chance is equivalent to playing favorites; no ifs, ands or buts.

And that murkiness makes it completely understandable why Mr. Newman is privately upset about this ruling, especially considering he's got two straight eighth-place finishes that would have left him seventh in points, just 74 off Johnson's lead if Newman had made the Chase. It's ultimately not a theory I'd like to believe in, but just the fact NASCAR's left the door open on those types of fantasies is reason enough to emphasize how much it has mishandled this affair.

Geoff agrees...

I can just see the conspiracy theorists coming out of the woodwork: NASCAR doesn't want Clint Bowyer anywhere near the championship for ... pick a reason. It doesn't help that NASCAR creates this type of environment. As far as I know, it is the only professional sport that doesn't do two things. First, they don't make their rulings public. I can get the rules for the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, FIFA, PGA, Formula 1, IZOD IndyCar, etc. I cannot get a copy of the NASCAR rule book. Since most people can't have access to the NASCAR rules, they don't know for sure what they are, how they could be applied, and as such, allowing room for some fans to assume NASCAR pretty much makes things up as they go along.

The second problem NASCAR has is that it doesn't show people the actual infraction for technical issues: no photos of the offending part, body with the template showing the offending space/shape.

NASCAR would do itself a gigantic favor by bringing some transparency to the sport when it comes to the rules. The fact that rules are kept secret is a symptom of a larger problem, one where NASCAR seems to be trying to exclude the fans, or only letting them participate on NASCAR's terms. Race attendance and TV ratings are down, and doing things that push fans away is not how you rebuild the sport's audience. I know that NASCAR hasn't generally been open about the rules, but just because "that's how they've always done it" doesn't mean it should remain the same. NASCAR is a great sport, but it continues to shrink over time, and runs a real risk of having "been a great sport," disappearing into obscurity and irrelevance like IndyCar/IRL/CART nearly did.

-- Geoff Kratz, Calgary, AB

Here, here Geoff! Someone was reading my take on Thursday. No need to repeat it, just a standing offer to buy a round if I ever see you 'round the track.

So how do we know that any car is legal if the on-track inspection process can be so easily circumvented? Are they going to start tearing down each race winner? Seems only fair to me. Bowyer passed on-track pre-and post-race inspections. as did everyone else. Good enough for me. And less than 1/16 of an inch would have no bearing on performance at a track like Loudon. NASCAR is not doing itself any favors here.

-- turnleftguy, Minneapolis, Minn.

Turnleftguy, the race winner gets automatically torn down each race as part of a trio of cars to make it to NASCAR's R & D Center. No surprise, though, that Clint Bowyer was one of those "random" selections after Dover, a selection that'll be all but automatic between now and the rest of the 2010 season -- no matter what happens on appeal.

Your other comments, though, remind us of the credibility issues after taking three days to bring a race car 1,000 miles away, only to declare it illegal. If testing can't be done at the track, well, the clock is ticking and at the absolute latest the car should be fully torn down and violations announced on Mondays. Forty-eight hours seems like far too much time, no matter what kind of high-tech, Bill Nye the Science Guy test is being done. This isn't a semester-long chemistry project, it's a real-life sporting event. There's a difference here.

Tom, why isn't anyone addressing the issue of the No. 11 and No. 48 cars failing the tech inspection after the race? I realize they passed the inspection the second time around after they cooled down, but is this a normal sequence of events? Bowyer was legal at the track, Hamlin and Johnson were not.

-- Penny, Mequon, Wis.

Penny's point is the biggest issue I had with Hamlin's comments on Friday. Both these cars at Loudon had to be run through at-the-track post-race inspection a second time, and here's why, according to what I was told. Pressurized shocks caused the car to rise to the point where they initially failed. The reason is these shocks are set up to expand during the race, the pressure pushing up the rear height of the car, resulting in additional grip in a CoT that's notoriously difficult to handle under green. When the race is over, it can take awhile for these parts to cool off and lower the height of the car, which can cause an initial failure in post-race inspection.

Why did these guys get a second chance? It's unclear, especially considering the same issue in post-qualifying inspection cost Mark Martin a third-place qualifying spot on Friday. Moving forward, it's a gray area where teams are pushing the issue, one where NASCAR could easily put the hammer down in the way it did with Bowyer's body tolerances.

So why would Hamlin go all revival preacher on us and sermonize about the seriousness of other teams and drivers cheating? While what resulted was fun to watch, playing right into NASCAR's "Have at it, boys" mantra, Mr. Johnson had it right by simply focusing on the task at hand rather than getting caught up in someone else's mess. Don't cast doubt on others when you're living in a glass house; you never know when that's going to come back to bite you.

So Penny, I wish I had answers about why those two cars weren't penalized. But until there's some sort of public consistency across the board, we may never know.

Tom, You can be sure that this is more about not wanting the No. 33 to win than anything else. It has always been like this, certainly in the more than 30 years I have been following it! Think back to who could get away with it and who could not... it cost Rusty races and Mark championships but NASCAR always wanted somebody else. There were always rumors about the "midnight call" or the "wink wink" policy and also about NASCAR not wanting Roush to win. This is the latest iteration: No. 33 doesn't do anything for them. It's a shame. Bowyer is more engaging than most of them and do you really think that what may -- or may not have occurred with the car -- makes a jot's worth of difference to the way he won the race. Better keep eating those brownies if you do!

-- Chris Hebeler, St. Louis, Mo.

Whether the height infraction constituted an advantage -- and if so, how much -- remains murky at best. But this type of conspiracy theory is just plain hogwash. Do you think this sport would take the bona fide unpopularity of a possible five-time champ over a Clint Bowyer Cinderella story? Honestly, there's only a handful of people NASCAR would choose Jimmie Johnson over right now: A) That annoying guy with the ShamWow commercials. B) Bristol Palin (and that's debatable). C) Dr. Oz D) Kim Jong Il.

I think everyone else would be a better story. So no, no truth to that rumor.

No reason to take away Bowyer's win if you take away the points and the money won. That should be enough of a deterrent. After watching every race so far this year (and attending Phoenix and Fontana), I did not watch New Hampshire because it was up against lots of NFL. It would be nice if they could wrap this all up before Labor Day, or move it to Friday nights.

-- Steve K., Columbus, Ohio

This one's a popular topic, especially with Reggie Bush recently giving up the Heisman because of improper gifts received while in college. Although I disagree with Bush's decision, if we're at the point when vacating trophies can happen for off-track incidents, faulty on-track equipment should be enough to give someone else first place. Why let a name stand in the record book when the victory itself wasn't legitimate? That's what you're saying with a 150-point penalty ... so keeping Bowyer's name, not second-place finisher Hamlin's on the trophy, makes no sense.

As for the NFL statement ... you're not alone. And that saddens me.

I am neither a NASCAR fan, nor detractor. I watch races here and there. I definitely study standings, etc. But I do not see what NASCAR did wrong here. It set up rules. Somebody broke a rule. Somebody got punished for it. I do not buy for a second the lame excuse about wreckers doing the damage. None of us know what the violation was, but I am confident that it is not something that a few bumps would cause. Furthermore, this violation is rumored to be of the same genus as a previous close call that was brought to NASCAR's attention that week.

Personally, I miss the days of Yarborough, Petty and Allison, where you could recognize the actual brand of car that was racing -- and when you could do almost anything short of adding nitrous to a car. Then again, those drivers did not make in a career (even adjusted for inflation) what a 2010 Chase driver makes this year. If you like the money, and the sponsorships, you have to accept the rules that go along with it.

-- Brian O'Connor

All right. So just because everyone's rich now there should be universal trust in the sanctioning body for every decision without protest? I'm not sure I get it.

You mentioned the boring racing in your column Monday and it's horrible. I haven't watched a race in full since Daytona and I haven't been in a year and a half. The product is awful and it's getting worse.

-- Mark Hodge, Atlanta, Ga.

Too many Bowyer e-mails to really get into this comment in-depth today. But it's worth pointing out the hideousness of the single-file racing at Dover, a borefest that sapped much-needed momentum from a monstrous start to NASCAR's Chase the week before. It's that type of stub-itself-in-the-foot pattern the sport's found itself saddled with all year, and it certainly doesn't help matters the next two events are on two of its least competitive facilities: Kansas and Fontana, the latter losing a date next year partly because of poor attendance.

And finally, our out-of-left -field e-mail for the week...

One question that I have is why an odd number of cars for the race? Why not 42 or 44? Also, I would like to know what is the cheapest spot for a decal on the car? If I could afford it (which I probably can't) I would like to advertise our small city here in Oklahoma. I think it is a really neat city and think it would be great if I could afford to have it on Carl [Edwards'] car and maybe it would get seen.

-- Dean Johnson, Warr Acres, Okla.

Forty-three cars, Dean, has been the nice random number NASCAR came up with in the late 1990s. This was after a fluctuation of starters at tracks at different lengths caused confusion to the point you would have 10 or 15 DNQs at a short track only starting 32 cars. So 43 appeared to be the best number that worked, one where a participant wouldn't get lost in the shuffle but where there would be enough competition each week that cars would actually have to fight just to qualify for the race. At first, that final spot was only reserved for the past champion's provisional, but by 1998 that number had been made standard across the board -- even if a racing legend didn't need a spot in the race.

As for your second question ... I know a guy who would actually take just $3,000 and put you on the hood of his Truck Series car. But Mr. Edwards? Even a small little decal is going to run you more money than that; and I'm not sure the small town of Warr Acres might want to dump its budget on a 5 x 7 decal to be on the side of the race car! If it does, that's the type of passion this sport needs.

"Met a lot of wounded soldiers with great attitudes today. We can all learn something from them." - @keselowski, Brad Keselowski after NASCAR drivers' annual visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC

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