FONTANA, Calif. — Since 1949, when the apparent winner of the very first race in what became NASCAR’s top series was disqualified for car modifications outside the rules, the not-so-delicate dance between NASCAR inspectors and team crew chiefs has been a big part of stock-car racing.
With so many parts, so many hidden areas, so many tempting opportunities for playing on the edge of being legal, it was clear from the first laps in that first season that the battle of wits between NASCAR police and top mechanics would match the on-track competition between drivers.
The late, great crew chief Harry Hyde (who was the model for the character Robert Duvall played in the otherwise largely forgettable NASCAR movie Days of Thunder) often described toying with the rulebook as “gettin’ competitive.” If you weren’t doing it, Hyde reasoned, you were far behind everybody else because they were.
Violations over the years have ranged from the ridiculous (tubes inside the car carrying extra fuel) to the sublime (tiny body modifications not always visible to the naked eye).
There have been fines both big and small, crew member suspensions, cuts in practice times and other detriments to rulebook abuse. Few have worked long-term.
Dealing with such shenanigans is an ongoing process for NASCAR. And this week, there was a lot of going on.
Thirteen Cup teams failed to make a qualifying lap Friday for Sunday’s Auto Club Speedway race. Their cars were rejected by NASCAR’s Optical Scanning Station, the sanctioning body’s newest (and apparently most effective) tool to catch miscreants among the garage area population.
This was not surprising. A race car’s aerodynamic shape on the ACS course, a two-mile track that produces high speeds, is a key to its speed and handling. Every wrinkle in the car body has an impact, however small.
So teams had plenty of incentive to test the strengths of the OSS, and some did. Embarrassingly for NASCAR (and the teams), 13 didn’t compete for qualifying spots, ruining whatever “show” there might be in time trials.
Those 13 were banished to the rear of the starting grid, but therein rested a problem. Because they didn’t make a qualifying lap on their new tires, the unlucky 13 would have started the race with a bit of an advantage. Drivers are required to start races on the tires with which they qualify, so the teams who did not run afoul of the inspection system would have been at a slight disadvantage because their tires were somewhat worn.
NASCAR responded Friday evening, allowing the teams that posted qualifying laps to switch to new tires for the start of the race.
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A bigger step was taken Saturday morning as officials informed teams competing in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race that those that failed pre-qualifying inspection would be required to pit on lap one of the race for a “pass-through” penalty, in effect costing them considerable on-time time.
Tellingly, all teams passed inspection.
That NASCAR change is very significant, and it’s expected to continue next week at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Teams are likely to put much more emphasis on presenting “legal” cars if they know the penalty might include a lap or more lost on track.
Give the edge in this ongoing battle, at least for the moment, to NASCAR. But don’t be surprised if the pendulum keeps swinging.
It always has.