Why NASCAR Came Down Hard on Hendrick, But Let William Byron's Phoenix Win Stand
A voluntary inspection of Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets by NASCAR at Phoenix Raceway has apparently backfired on the organization, resulting in the stiffest penalties ever assessed by the sanctioning body.
Every weekend, NASCAR conducts pre-qualifying, pre-race, and post-race inspections with different penalty levels for when infractions are discovered.
A post-race inspection infraction may result in a victory being taken from a driver, such as occurred last year at Pocono Raceway when NASCAR disqualified Denny Hamlin and runner-up Kyle Busch.
If someone fails pre-race inspection multiple times, that team may lose practice time at a future event.
The Phoenix Timeline
When the teams arrived at Phoenix Raceway last weekend, NASCAR gave the Cup teams 50 minutes of practice on Friday so they could adapt to the new rules that eliminated 30% of the cars’ downforce.
Thirty-five minutes after the garage opened on Friday and prior to on-track activity, NASCAR took hood louvers from the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets during a voluntary inspection. In a statement issued Wednesday, Hendrick Motorsports said NASCAR took possession of the louvers approximately four hours later with no prior communication. The louvers that were taken were replaced and all four cars were deemed legal by NASCAR for qualifying and the race, which is why taking away William Byron's win was not an option for NASCAR.
On Wednesday, NASCAR announced the the penalties that involved all four Hendrick teams and Kaulig Racing’s No. 31 team. They were for the modification of hood louvers, which fall under a single source vendor supplied part.
Louvers were taken from the No. 31 car during pre-qualifying inspection. NASCAR maintains the teams altered a single source vendor supplied part which became illegal with the Next Gen car.
The crew chiefs for the car Nos. 5, 9, 24, 48 and 31 (Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Ryan Fugle, Blake Harris and Trent Owens) were each fined $100,000 and suspended from the next four NASCAR Cup point races. Each team and driver (Kyle Larson, Josh Berry substituting for Chase Elliott, Byron, Alex Bowman and Justin Haley) will lose 100 points as well as each driver losing 10 playoff points.
With it being so early in the season, Byron is the only driver that will lose any significant amount of playoff points. Byron, who won two of the season’s first four races, now has three playoff points instead of 13. Larson possessed only one playoff point after the Phoenix race while the other Hendrick drivers as well as Kaulig Racing’s Haley had none.
Hendrick Motorsports said Wednesday in a prepared statement that it was “disappointed” with NASCAR’s penalties that were the stiffest ever assessed by the sanctioning body and it would appeal.
“We are disappointed with today’s decision by NASCAR to issue penalties and have elected to appeal based on a variety of facts,” Hendrick said in the statement.
Hendrick stated the penalties were being appealed for the following reasons:
• Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR.
• Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers.
• Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.
Calling it a “strategic decision,” Hendrick stated it would not request deferral of personnel suspensions for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Atlanta.
Kaulig Racing could not be reached regarding whether it planned to appeal its penalty.
With today’s technology, even though a crew chief has been suspended that doesn’t mean he’s not in contact with his team. The pit box is now an electronic communications center that allows the team’s crew chief and engineers to be in constant communication with people in each team’s “war room” at the race shops on race day.
The hood louvers were taken from the Hendrick cars after Friday’s practice at Phoenix Raceway, while they were confiscated from the Kaulig car during pre-qualifying inspection.
Penalties for Almirola, Hamlin, too
The other penalties assessed Wednesday involved Aric Almirola’s team and Denny Hamlin.
Stewart-Haas Racing crew members Ryan Mulder and Sean Cotton were suspended from the next two Cup point races due to the wheel coming off Almirola’s Ford during the race. Initially, it was reported the wheel broke, but NASCAR said after reviewing video from different angles it determined the single lug nut came off.
Hamlin’s incident with Ross Chastain on the Phoenix race’s final lap didn’t come to NASCAR’s attention until Hamlin admitted during his podcast earlier this week that he intentionally wrecked Chastain. Hamlin said when he was going backwards through the field on the final restart due to the cars with fresh tires passing him, that he decided he would take Chastain with him. Until his admission, NASCAR viewed it as a racing incident.
Hamlin was fined $50,000 and had 25 driver points taken from him. His violation fell under “attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race or championship” and “wrecking or spinning another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result.” NASCAR deemed his actions to be detrimental to the sport.
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer said the sanctioning body doesn’t want to get in the middle of driver disputes but noted the one between Chastain and Hamlin had gone on since last year. NASCAR thought the two men’s issues were settled, but with Hamlin’s remarks on his podcast it appeared the issue had been rekindled.
“The comments that were made afterwards put us in a position that we had no choice but to react,” Sawyer said.