AVONDALE – Following William Byron’s win Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion and Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports Jeff Gordon put on his PR hat.
Two days prior, four Hendrick Motorsports Cup Series teams had the hood louvers confiscated from their cars driven during Cup Series practice. NASCAR took the parts for further examination, and Gordon began the process of explaining his team’s misstep after the weekend had concluded.
“It was weighing on all of our minds, you know, coming into today and certainly will continue to. We had some conversation with and continue to have conversations with NASCAR,” Gordon said. “Every situation is sort of unique, but this one is a more unique one that I’ve seen in a while, where there’s been a lot of communication back and forth on this particular part, especially for this racetrack. Because they did a parody test, the wind tunnel, and so I think it really opened up the door for some miscommunication. I don’t want to go any further than that.”
On Wednesday, NASCAR sent a clear message.
NASCAR docked each Hendrick team 100 regular-season points and 10 playoff points, fined each team $100,000 and suspended crew chiefs Rudy Fugle, Alan Gustafson, Cliff Daniels and Blake Harris for the next four races. The fines combined are the largest in NASCAR history, and the team has declared it will appeal. Justin Haley and the Kaulig Racing No. 31 team were handed the same punishment and also plan to appeal.
“This isn’t uncharted waters. We, from time to time, will capture parts, we’ll bring them back,” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer said. “As we continue to investigate, look at parts and compare parts, it was obvious to us that these parts had been modified in an area that wasn’t approved.”
The louvers are designed to direct air away from the hood and alter the aerodynamics of the racecar. The part is one of a handful of single-sourced parts that must match the design submitted to NASCAR by the manufacturer.
Hendrick argues that the parts were provided to the team by NASCAR and cited unclear communication about the specifications of the louvers.
“As we’re working through this car, again, we want to make sure the car is in the box that it needs to be in, and we’re officiating and inspecting it at the level that we need to,” Sawyer said.
Hendrick also had problems with the precedent NASCAR has set with its punishment. In previous incidents, NASCAR found discoveries of violations following a race, not a practice like this.
NASCAR, however, believes it has been direct in communication.
“I think we’ve made it very clear, through the very start of this project with the Next Gen car, again, as I alluded to earlier, working directly with the garage, the owners on what the deterrent model needs to be,” Sawyer said. “It’s NASCAR’s responsibility to make sure that we uphold that, so we will continue to do what we need to do to keep this car in check. It’s for the betterment of our sport, the betterment for the business model, and that’s our responsibility and we’ll continue to do that.”
The penalties will have severe consequences for the Hendrick drivers and Haley in the standings, where he sits in last place after going from 60 points to -40. Alex Bowman drops from first in the standings to 23rd, Byron from fourth to 29th and Kyle Larson from fifth to 32nd.
Chase Elliot, the normal Hendrick Motorsports driver of the No. 9 car, won’t see any driver points deducted and moved from 29th place to 26th as he recovers from a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding accident. He is expected to return around the same time as his crew chief, Gustafson.
NASCAR’s most polarizing rivalry of the past season has been Denny Hamlin vs. Ross Chastain, and fans saw the next installment of the rivalry on the final two laps Sunday in Phoenix.
Hamlin was one of six cars to gamble on the final pit stop in Phoenix, taking only two tires instead of four. After a poor restart, Hamlin slid into Chastain on the outside, sending the two cars into the wall and allowing the freight train of four tire cars past. Hamlin finished the race 23rd and Chastain 24th.
The TV cameras remained glued to the intense battle for the lead, leading the incident to go fairly under the radar. That remained the case until Monday morning when Hamlin went on his podcast, Actions Detrimental, and admitted he purposely wrecked Chastain on Sunday.
“I’m about to get passed by everybody behind me who’s on fresh tires. I’m about to finish in the mid-teens. And I said, ‘You’re coming with me buddy.’ I let the wheel go and I said, ‘He’s coming with me,’” Hamlin said. “I’ve said for a while, well, you got to do something to get these guys’ attention, whatever, and I’ve said it. I know that Ross doesn’t like it when I speak his name in the media and when I have this microphone, but I’ve told him well, I have a microphone and I’m going to call it like I see it. And until you get a microphone, you can still say whatever you want about me.”
Hamlin’s admission of guilt put NASCAR in a situation in which they had no choice, serving the three-time Daytona 500 winner a $50,000 suspension and a 25-point deduction in the standings.
“I will say we were delighted that Denny has a podcast. We think that’s great, (it) interacts with the fans. But when you start admitting that you have intentionally done something that would compromise the results of the end of the race, then that rises to the level that we’re going to get involved,” Sawyer said. “There’s no other way to look at that. We’re going to get involved in those situations. We’ve been consistent in the past with that, and we will be consistent going forward.”
NASCAR has let drivers “police themselves” from time to time, allowing for on-track incidents to be dealt with between drivers. NASCAR reiterated that sentiment but also reiterated the situation they were dealt by the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car.
“We encourage that, we want them to show their personalities. We want them to settle this. We don’t want to be in the middle of it,” Sawyer said. “But this one has gone on for a little while, it went on last year. I felt like maybe we were in a good spot. Looked like it was rearing its head again, and then the comments that were made afterwards put us in a position that we had no choice but to react, and again that has been consistent.”
NASCAR is going through a youth movement and the 75-year-old company knows the message it would send if it hadn’t taken action.
“You look at our athletes at the highest level of motorsports in North America, and sending the message that it’s okay to tell somebody that, ‘I’m going to wreck you,’ and then do that. That’s not the message that we need to be sending to anybody,” Sawyer said. “We don’t need to be sending that to young drivers that are starting out in lower levels and aspire to be at the NASCAR cup level, you know, in some period of time. That’s not the message that we need to be sending.”
Hamlin and Chastain talked post-race, calling a truce on the rivalry for now. However, given the competitive nature of both drivers, don’t expect this to be the end.
The Cup Series field heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500 on Sunday, and the punished teams and drivers will look to restart the climb up the standings – and stay out of trouble.