Opinion: NASCAR Cup drivers take notice after Trucks disqualification, suspension

When NASCAR announced in February it would disqualify drivers whose cars failed postrace inspection, the big question loomed on what it would take for NASCAR to actually take the trophy away from the winner.

Drivers and teams learned that answer on June 16 when NASCAR issued its first disqualification under the policy after Ross Chastain’s truck failed to meet the minimum postrace ground clearance measurements during a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway.

A year ago, the likely penalty for Chastain would have included losing the ability to use the win to qualify for the playoffs, the loss of 10 overall points, the loss of the seven playoff points earned in the race and the loss of the $50,000 race-specific bonus that went along with the victory. But the record books still would have listed Chastain as the winner.

Ross Chastain celebrated with the winner's trophy at Iowa Speedway before NASCAR stripped him of the victory. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall, AP)

Under the new policy, Brett Moffitt, who didn’t lead a lap on his way to a second-place finish, has the win and the trophy. Chastain, who was credited with a last-place finish, lost 55 points as a result and likely had a bigger “fine” as his team was paid last-place money. NASCAR doesn’t publish its purse, but the difference between the win and last place most likely was more than $10,000.

Although the disqualification occurred in what is NASCAR’s version of its minor leagues (think of the truck series as Double-A baseball), it still resonated throughout every division. NASCAR had not taken the win away from a driver in a national series race since 1995 (a 1999 disqualification was reversed on appeal).

“It definitely sends a message,” said defending Cup champion Joey Logano, who missed the playoffs in 2017 because, in part, his car failed tech following his victory in the Richmond spring race. “We all watched it. Wherever we were, I think everyone had their TV on watching and at least hearing about it in the news.

“It was devastating for a lot of different reasons. … It is as if they didn’t show up.”

SENDING A MESSAGE

The ride-height rule is somewhat controversial because teams design the trucks to race as low to the ground as possible and then spring back into place while at a stop in order to meet the ground-clearance minimum. There is no postrace rule for ride height in the Cup Series.

“It’s an easy way to send a message through a less publicized series with less attention, to not have the critics and [uprising] you would have if and when it happens here,” said 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

“I hate the height rules. I don’t think it affected Ross’ truck, and I don’t think it affected the way it performed. …. But rule's a rule and they stuck by what they said. If you’re going to make something black and white, whether you like it or not, you need to stick by it.”

While they don’t have a ride-height rule, Cup teams face similar rules (weight, camber, etc.) that appear as fairly black-and-white measurements that don’t typically require a NASCAR judgment call.

“When it comes to whether you’re in the red [signifying too low on the height measuring stick] is one thing, but when crew chiefs start tinkering around with vents or air leaking, that’s when you’re like, ‘Would they really do it?’” said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin.

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Drivers seemed OK with the disqualification philosophy, especially since it relies on at-track inspection following a race. NASCAR no longer takes cars back to its research center in North Carolina for inspection on the Tuesday after a race. Instead it conducts inspection and makes the call that night, avoiding a midweek ruling and story line on the legality of the car.

Chastain’s appeal hearing — the team argued race damage caused the violation — occurred just three days after the race, and NASCAR’s final appeals officer declined to overturn the penalty. Of the last 16 national series appeals for technical violations, 15 have been upheld and one had a fine reduced. Not since 2015 has a NASCAR-appointed appeals panel rescinded or decreased a points penalty for a technical violation.

“I’ve told my guys that we need to make sure that we can do all the best things that we know how to do to make our trucks be legal after the race for the rules we are supposed to meet,” said 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch, who fields three full-time trucks in the series.

“We have done a pretty good job of that. We have been busted a couple of times. It’s going to be way more important these days.”

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