CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR's playoffs are set to begin with a new set of rules that gives the sanctioning body the power to issue far stiffer penalties - so stringent that a driver could lose the championship if his team fails inspection.
The increased penalties announced Wednesday give NASCAR the authority to levy a harsh penalty should a car fail a post-race trip to the Laser Inspection Station. How stiff? A winning team would not be able to use the victory to advance to the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The same penalty could apply to a team that does not have enough secure lug nuts on a car's wheels at the end of a race.
The new punishments, under guidelines applying to ''encumbered finishes,'' will go into effect if a team fails the post-race laser by a significant amount or if three or more of the 20 lug nuts aren't secure after a race. A winning team will not be stripped of the victory, but the benefits that come with a win could be docked.
''We wanted to make sure that the door wasn't open for a team to really take advantage of the rules,'' said Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition. ''The level of infraction that it takes to end up with an encumbered finish, we haven't seen that. It would certainly be egregious from everything we've seen before. We want to get these things in place to ensure we have a level playing field and nobody tries to take advantage of the current rules.''
The guidelines came the same day NASCAR docked Martin Truex Jr. 35 points and fined crew chief Cole Pearn $15,000 because Truex's car failed the laser inspection Saturday night at Richmond. The points deduction does not apply to Truex for the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, because the points have been reset to seed the 16-driver field. Truex begins the Chase seeded sixth.
Among the significant changes announced Wednesday was one addressing missing lug nuts. A crew chief will no longer be suspended for one missing lug nut because NASCAR found it did not give teams a significant advantage. Monetary fines will be administered for one or two missing lug nuts, with a suspension warranted for anything else. There has been discussion all season about lug nuts, with the idea that the less time spent securing them leads to a quicker pit stop.
The penalty escalates for severity under an encumbered finish in this fashion:
- A team that wins the race would not be able to use the victory to determine Chase eligibility, eligibility for advancement in the Chase or eligibility for non-points races.
- Regardless of the finishing position, that finish does not count when determining the champion and three runners-up in the final race of the Chase.
- A P4 level lug nut violation would amount to a three-race suspension for the crew chief, a $20,000 fine and the loss of 35 championship driver and owner points.
Five crew chiefs have been suspended this year after their car was found to be missing a lug nut after a race.
''That was kind of a one-tier approach to assure that the garage area complied with a pretty serious penalty for a crew chief suspension,'' Miller said of the previous penalty. ''As we looked at a more global approach and deeper, what we proposed here and what we enacted here is a lot more the penalty fitting the crime.''
MORE RPM CHANGES
Richard Petty Racing continued to make changes after it was shut out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
The team this week gave Aric Almirola a new crew chief for the final 10 races of the season.
Drew Blickensderfer replaced Trent Owens for the No. 42 Ford. Owens, in his third season as Almirola's crew chief, will be reassigned to another position at RPM.
''We are continuing to analyze every part of our organizations and make adjustments where needed,'' said RPM CEO Brian Moffitt. ''We've made significant investments in both teams, and the results for the No. 43 team have not been what we expected.''
Blickensderfer had been RPM's director of research and development. He won three Sprint Cup races as a crew chief, including the 2009 Daytona 500 with Matt Kenseth. He most recently was the crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr. in 10 races last year.
Blickensderfer has 15 wins with 13 different drivers in the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series.
John Hunter Nemechek has a spot in the Truck Series first Chase for the championship, and a new sponsor to help fund his effort.
NEMCO Motorsports has signed Fire Alarm Services, Inc. for five of the seven Chase races.
Nemechek has two wins this season, including a controversial victory over Cole Custer at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park two weeks ago. He bumped Custer out of his way in the final turn and the two drag-raced through the grass to the finish line.
Custer needed the win to make the Chase, which begins Sept. 24 at New Hampshire. The final Chase field will be set after this weekend's race at Chicagoland
FAS will be on Nemechek's No. 8 Chevrolet at New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Talladega, Phoenix and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
IndyCar has placed a freeze on aero kit development for manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda ahead of the 2017 season. Current kits will be run next season but the series plans to to introduce a universal aero kit for the 2018 season.
''Today's announcement follows an extended dialogue with Chevrolet, Honda, our teams and stakeholders - this decision focused on what is best for the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series,'' said Jay Frye, the series' president of competition and operations. ''This is an integral component to INDYCAR's long-term plan to continue to produce the highest quality of on-track competition while also positioning ourselves to add additional engine manufacturers.''
Aero kit regulations were initially announced in 2013 and added to competition last year.