In the second year of the Next Gen car, NASCAR has dealt with a fair share of controversy during the 2023 Cup Series season. The fallout from Phoenix Raceway’s race in March led to one of the largest combined team penalties in the sport’s history. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Kyle Busch wanted to turn Phoenix Raceway into Royal Rumble on a Sunday afternoon in March, and the former NASCAR Cup Series champion let it be known days after Denny Hamlin intentionally wrecked rival Ross Chastain at Phoenix Raceway.
“When it comes to the time in which it starts affecting other people’s races and such, then again, I think it leaves the door open for you to go punch somebody in the face,” Busch said after the collision affected him and other drivers during the 317-mile NASCAR Cup Series race.
On NASCAR’s end, the fallout has caused quite the ripple effect with no clear end in sight. NASCAR not only punished Hamlin for his on-track theatrics but levied the largest combined team penalty in the sport’s history to the four Hendrick Motorsports teams, while Justin Haley and the No. 31 Kaulig Racing team also received the same punishment.
The drama had only just begun.
All parties penalized decided to appeal. Before the decision to appeal, Hamlin channeled his inner-Marshawn Lynch in his next media availability the week after Phoenix in Atlanta.
“I think you should get your Shingrix shingles vaccination, is what I think,” Hamlin said in a tone that suggested he only answered questions to meet his media obligation and avoid further discipline. He repeatedly shouted out the Shingrix sponsor on his hat before saying, “I have nothing to say.”
Once the dust settled and the appeals were heard, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel created a bigger problem for NASCAR.
Hamlin’s penalty was upheld, with the decision raising questions of its own. Bigger questions were raised when the appeals panel reversed the penalties against Hendrick Motorsports while upholding Haley’s. As anticipated, the decision did not sit well with many in the sport and was reversed to drop Haley’s points penalty on second appeal.
“From the outside looking in, (it) looks like the same two penalties and you have one that’s undone from a points standpoint and one that stays the same,” Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick said. “It leads to a lot of questions. I think when you start adding rules to the process, I think it adds more questions in my opinion.”
Harvick admitted at the time he didn’t have all the facts, but the inconsistency of the enforcement was clear as day. NASCAR knew this but doesn’t govern the appeals panel, which changes with each case. The problem came when the panel admitted both Hendrick and Kaulig violated the rules but didn’t enforce the rule for Hendrick.
The following week, once the appeals were complete, NASCAR went on the offensive, “randomly” selecting the cars of Alex Bowman and William Byron to be further inspected at NASCAR’s research and development center after April’s race at Richmond Raceway.
The two Hendrick drivers were penalized 60 points and five playoff points, while the interim crew chiefs were suspended for two races and fined $75,000. The move appeared to be an attempt to regain credibility in the garage after the self-inflicted damage.
NASCAR routinely selects cars to go to the R&D center, but the optics just days after the appeal fallout were clear.
“It’s not random anymore,” Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports said. “NASCAR now admits its series director discretion. I think NASCAR should just come out and say, ‘Look, these teams were penalized earlier this year and it’s our obligation to make sure they’re following the rules so … they’re going to get extra scrutiny.’ I don’t think anybody would really have a huge problem with that. Maybe some people would say, ‘Well now you’re just targeting Hendrick,’ but they’ve given them a reason in some ways to target them, they’ve been found guilty of penalties this year. Even the appeals said that they violated the rules.”
NASCAR’s latest cat-and-mouse game between itself and the teams raises serious questions.
Where does NASCAR’s credibility stand currently in the garage as teams look for an edge in the second year of the Next Gen car? Is this still a self-policing sport? Will the penalties, specifically to Hamlin, water down potential rivalries that could help the sport’s popularity?
Cole Cusumano, AZCentral’s motorsports reporter, can’t recall a time with as many penalties levied as recently and cited the lack of transparency for losing credibility in the garage.
”It’s a very difficult time for NASCAR right now because there’s such division and so much confusion with the whole penalty process,” Cusumano said. “What it all boils down to for me is a lack of transparency from the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, because the worst thing right now is there’s been more penalties than I’ve personally ever seen since watching NASCAR.”
Harvick, who will retire after the 2023 NASCAR season, bluntly offered his solution to the issue of transparency.
“I think as transparent as everything has been now, I think we should do them publicly,” Harvick said. “Why not? Right? If it’s truly fair, let’s just do them publicly. Livestream them on NASCAR.com, and let’s go for it.”
One critical detail regarding Hendrick and Haley’s penalties was the modified parts were provided by NASCAR and couldn’t fit on the car. Cusumano said Hendrick’s efforts to be transparent during the Phoenix race weekend helped him in the end.
“Hendrick Motorsports was aware that they were given parts that did not fit the hood louvers, so they kinda had to alter them to fit, and they were in communication with NASCAR throughout the entire process in modifying them,” Cusumano said. “They volunteered to do pre-qualifying inspection, they didn’t have to, but they knew that they had these parts that they had altered so they wanted to be upfront and they were being transparent. Jeff Gordon was open about this. Chad Knaus was very open as well.”
It was easier to read between the lines with the Richmond penalties.
Pockrass compared the post-race inspection to the holding penalty in the NFL. Referees could seemingly throw a holding flag on every play, but it’s their discretion.
“I think NASCAR knows it looked obvious. I don’t think it would be a surprise to them,” Pockrass said. “There is a little bit of cowboy justice in this sport, and I think people accept that. They accept that if you are someone who’s been pushing the rules or made NASCAR upset that you’re going to get a little extra scrutiny, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt.”
Whether NASCAR remains a self-policing sport remains up for debate. NASCAR admitted its hand was forced when Hamlin flat out avowed his guilt, but the severity of the penalty could set a precedent that may not be in NASCAR’s best interest for growing the sport.
From a liability standpoint, Pockrass argues, it makes sense to drop the hammer on Hamlin. It’s one thing to retaliate by coming to blows, but it’s another to retaliate by sending a car into a wall at high speeds, especially given the uptick in head injuries in year one of the Next Gen car.
“I almost viewed the Denny penalty as almost an insurance penalty,” Pockrass said. “You can’t have a driver saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to wreck somebody on purpose,’ and condone it because if something were to happen and somebody were to get injured, then what is NASCAR’s liability?”
There likely won’t be a difference in how drivers race. The sport is experiencing a major youth movement with the older drivers moving toward retirement. The younger generation has earned a reputation for ultra-aggressive racing, unafraid to push drivers out of the way no matter the cost.
On brand, Busch didn’t mince words when voicing his displeasure with the current state of the garage.
“We’ve completely lost any sense of respect in the garage area between drivers,” Busch said. “That’s where the problem lies, nobody gives two s—- about anybody else, and it’s just a problem where everybody takes advantage of everybody as much as they can. We’re all selfish, granted. But there was once an etiquette that did live here.”
The youth movement has swept through the Cup Series, but not without clear growing pains as the new generation learns the ropes. The way Pockrass sees it, the only thing that will change is how drivers speak about their wrecks and the evidence of this has already been displayed.
“I think the main impact of this is that drivers are going to lie after they wreck somebody on purpose,” Pockrass said. “They’re going to be like Ryan Preece was after Bristol, where he said he just got loose and doesn’t know how to race dirt when he got into (it with) Kyle Larson. I think NASCAR wants to have those rivalries.”
NASCAR certainly wants those spicy rivalries – like the ones featuring Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, or more recently Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards – something the sport has lacked in recent years. NASCAR had lacked a long-running rivalry since Keselowski and Edwards’ saga until Hamlin and Chastain had a couple run-ins on the track.
In one of the craziest moves in the sports history, Chastain ran full throttle against the wall at Martinsville Speedway last October, passing Hamlin right at the finish line to steal the final Championship 4 spot from Hamlin.
The lore for the budding rivalry is expansive, but did NASCAR handcuff its drivers from initiating future rivalries with Hamlin’s penalty?
Driver rivalries energize a fanbase that was formerly polarized by Earnhardt and Gordon, with seemingly the entire fanbase picking a side between the intimidator or the rainbow warriors. But a hyper-focus on advertising in conjunction with the number of penalties have turned the drivers into robots in front of the camera, which won’t attract more eyes to the sport.
“You’re not seeing a whole lot of personality I feel like from the majority of these drivers, specifically the younger ones in the sport now with this whole youth movement kind of taking hold,” Cusumano said. “I think it’s because you’re seeing a massive influx of penalties, and it makes it difficult for drivers to voice their minds or take matters into their own hands.”
Cusumano clarified that NASCAR has exciting personalities at its disposal, but they have been watered down.
“It adds character to the sport for the drivers behind the helmets,” Cusumano said. “Us obviously working in the media center we see that first hand but from an outwards lens watching on TV, you might not get that perspective, you just get the one dimensional, thank you to sponsors, thank you this, thank you that.”
The sport has always been a cat-and-mouse game between NASCAR and its teams. Today’s current rules are a result of teams looking to take advantage of any edge they can get. Clarity and consistency as to how NASCAR will officiate the Next Gen era should come with time.
The sport has come this far thanks to its evolution, and each era had its growing pains. NASCAR has been able to overcome the growing pains in each era, so history says things should smooth out between NASCAR and the garage once the dust settles.