Three thoughts on the severe penalties leveled against Ryan Newman and the No. 31 team for racing on illegally modified tires.
1. There was plenty of smoke before the fire.
As for the fire, it is white-hot. NASCAR hit Newman & Co. with a P5 penalty, the second stiffest in the rule book. Newman and his team owner, Richard Childress were each docked 75 points. Crew chief Luke Lambert was fined $125,000 and, along with tire technician James Bender and engineer Philip Surgen, sidelined from six Sprint Cup races and placed on probation until Dec. 31.
As for the smoke, it was especially thick after the season’s fifth race in Fontana, Calif., which ended with NASCAR confiscating the rubber of Newman, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Kurt Busch for further inspection. Official were looking for whether they had taken up the practice of using small drill bits to put holes in the sidewalls of tires before the race. This hack, known inside the infield as “bleeding tires,” makes for consistent air pressure, which tends to rise as a new tire heats up with use. It is also very much against the rules—the stock car equivalent of corking a baseball bat.
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So it figures the NASCAR community would hold very strong views about punishing potential violators—views they made plain leading up to last week’s race Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Team owner Roger Penske flat out told his drivers avoid such tactics, while driver Denny Hamlin, who won the Martinsville race, suggested violators “should be gone forever. … Definitely no room for it in the sport.”
NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell was effectively as resolute as Hamlin after the penalties against RCR were announced on Tuesday afternoon. “NASCAR takes very seriously its responsibility to govern and regulate the rules of the sport in order to ensure competitive balance,” he said in a statement. “We’ve been very clear that any modifications to race vehicle tires is an unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated.”
2. It couldn’t have happened to a less controversial team.
Newman, 37, is the driver next door. He looks like a soccer dad, holds an engineering degree from Purdue and recoils from the spotlight. His run-ins with fellow racers are all bark and no balled fists. Newman's nickname, “Rocket Man,” couldn’t be more ill-fitting. In fact, it would prove an especially poor fit last year, as he wended his way into the new-look Chase and finished a career-high second in the points despite not winning a race all season.
He seemed poised points-wise to race his way into the postseason again in 2015, averaging a finish of 14.3 through the season’s first six races while taking Victory Lane—a territory he hasn’t breached since July of 2013, when he grabbed the checkered flag in Indianapolis. Newman was ranked sixth in the points after a 27th-place showing at Martinsville. The penalty would drop him to 27th, clean out of the playoff picture and put an even heavier burden on him to win now even with eight months of weekends still to race. That is, if the penalty stands.
3. Expect RCR to proceed carefully in the appeals process.
Not because the team doesn’t appreciate the severity of this situation. "In fact,” RCR president Torrey Galida said in a statement on Tuesday, “RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against ‘tire bleeding’ since the rumors began to surface last season. Once NASCAR provides us with the specific details of the infraction we will conduct a further internal investigation and evaluate our options for an appeal.”
Such was RCR’s tack in 2012, when the No. 27 team of Menard was penalized for using an illegal car frame. The difference this time around is the team has time on its side. With NASCAR taking this weekend off to observe Easter before the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 11, RCR has plenty of time to get its proverbial ducks in a row for an expedited appeals process that, at the very least, could wipe out Newman’s points penalty and keep the spearhead of their garage in the draft.