There seems to be a bit of confusion surrounding the severity of penalties handed down to the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team and driver Chase Elliott following his second-place finish and stage win last Sunday.
NASCAR issued an L1 penalty to the team on Tuesday after discovering “the modification of components to affect the aerodynamic properties of the vehicle”. Crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk received a one-week vacation, and the team lost 15 driver/owner points. NASCAR also deemed the finish encumbered.
Denny Hamlin admits he didn’t know a lot about the infraction.
"All I know is they had a great points day,” Hamlin said. “Really, I think they just took a few stage points away for the most part.”
Hamlin’s Darlington win was encumbered two weeks ago after the No. 11 Toyota was busted for an illegal rear suspension (Section 20.14.2 Rear Suspension I-4 f Truck Trailing Arm Spacers Pinion Angle Shims). The penalty — also considered a L1 violation — cost Hamlin 25 driver/owner points and a two-race suspension for crew chief Mike Wheeler.
“From my standpoint, it looks like it's a misdemeanor,” Hamlin said of Elliott's penalty. “NASCAR didn't deem that a very big penalty, so there must not have been any intent there. I guess it was all an accident.”
Not much of an impact?
When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. does the math, he still sees the No. 24 team coming out ahead. Initially, Elliott picked up 53 points for finishing second, winning one stage and finishing third in the other. He also got one playoff point for the Stage 2 win. Elliott was sixth in the Cup standings leaving Chicagoland. He was eighth following the penalty, 58 points behind leader Martin Truex Jr.
“I think the 24 still came out with a net gain,” said Stenhouse, who is 14th in the standings, 22 points behind Elliott. “I think the whole garage probably looks at it that way, but does his Playoff points and his penalty really affect that cutoff line? Probably not, so if this is the second or third round, I think that could come into play and would probably be talked about a little bit more.
“For us, we’re focused on just beating the cars that we’re close to in points. If he would have backed all the way up and got zero points, then all of us would have gotten more points, so it would have been pretty much a wash for the cutoff spot. But I think something like that happens in the second or third round would be pretty interesting to see what the garage thought about that.”
Clearly, when NASCAR changed the point structure at the start of the season to include the potential of picking up additional points through the race for stages and playoff points for stage and race wins, the consequences of the possible penalties didn’t factor in.
Stage racing has changed the dynamic of competition this season. Ryan Newman says it forces drivers to “run hard the whole time." But Newman, who is currently in the playoff cellar, has also noticed the disparity between running up front and racing mid-pack when it comes to collecting maximum points.
“The way the points work, there is just more of a gap now from first to 16th let’s say,” Newman said. “And especially the top 10 with the stage breaks. You just have to run as hard as you possibly can and get as much as you can the whole time. At the same time not sacrifice the next stage for the stage that you are in. The big one is at the end. So, getting stage points and then costing yourself a bunch of track position for the next stage is not a good plan.
“I’m still trying to figure out how the No. 24 got all those points. And what is an encumbered finish when you are second--what does that mean?”
Newman on recent penalties
According to NASCAR, the second-place finish would not count in the case of a tie-breaker and Elliott does not earn the playoff point from the stage win.
Newman’s reaction? “That was a big penalty,” said the driver, tongue firmly in cheek.
“He got a bonus point, he got points for winning that stage,” Newman added. “I mean to me the math just doesn’t add up. For how serious some of the penalties have been here in the last little bit. I don’t know to see the guys kind of mocking their penalty from last week it just doesn’t look really good for a lot of people.”
Newman and the No. 31 Caterpillar car altered its strategy based on Elliott’s dominant performance in the second stage.
“My problem with it is he (Elliott) lapped me to be two laps down, with two laps to go in the second stage,” Newman said. “And I’m pretty sure his car had the same infractions at that point as it did throughout the entire race. So, his situation changed my situation and the way we raced our race because of that.
“Obviously, NASCAR deemed it an advantage. So, how do you really penalize in that situation? To me it’s shame on a lot of people for letting it get to that point.”