I’ve taken a couple days to process the fact that NASCAR finally said the hell with the shenanigans and stripped a win from a race driver and his team for skirting the rulebook. It’s a massive philosophical difference in penalizing illegalities to the racecar. I (begrudgingly) opened the Twitter machine to gauge the pulse of the fanbase, and many of you hollered ‘of course they took the win! They cheated!’ While not inaccurate, it’s also not quite that simple.
Prior to Sunday at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR hasn’t taken a victory away for cheating up a racecar in my lifetime. I’m 46 years old as of this writing.
So when they stripped Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch of first and second in the Pocono 500, it was a hell of a statement to the garage: Don’t try us. Very little shocks me anymore. This was close. I was very surprised.
I asked around the sport for clarity as to what exactly happened, and why. I’m told the Gibbs boys put some helicopter tape down on the front fascia of the racecar first, then covered it with the body wrap that, these days, serves as the car’s “paint” scheme. The car are no longer painted. They’re wrapped in a huge sticker.
Based on my conversations, I imagine the vast majority of the 11 and 18 team members had no clue this happened prior to the race, and the drivers damn sure didn’t know. One Cup Series crew chief explained to me that the object of placing the tape under the wrap was to shallow-up the cavity in front of the wheel opening and smooth it out, which thereby reduces drag, albeit a very small amount. Unfortunately for Hamlin, Busch and their teams, NASCAR peeled back the body wrap during post race inspection. Busted. Teams have been circumventing the rule book since NASCAR’s inception, but for decades the sanctioning body did not strip wins for cheated-up race cars. Huge fines and championship points deductions? Yes. Suspensions? Definitely. But wins? Very rarely.
This is a new frontier. New car. New rules. New Sheriff in town. Not the same ol’ BS. And now everybody knows just how much NASCAR means it. That does not, however, mean everyone in the garage agrees with it. And I’m not just talking about the Gibbs teams that got slapped, either.
There are plenty of crew chiefs out there shaking their heads on this one. Rest assured, NASCAR doesn’t care.
Chase Elliott is in championship form. Elliott was the benefactor of Hamlin and Busch’s misfortune at Pocono. He finished third, but when the 11 and 18 were DQ’d, Elliott was granted the win. He was far from impressed and almost seemed embarrassed, saying he doesn’t plan to celebrate crossing the finish line third. The expectation for this team, at this time, is winning. Elliott, his crew Alan Gustafson and the entire 9 team are fast everywhere, on every type of racetrack. And this weekend, as the series heads to the Indy road course, they’re the betting favorite to win.
Hamlin and Ross Chastain are magnetically attracted in 2022. They’ve made contact a lot this season. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s awesome.
And it’s not over. These are two of the fastest, most consistent drivers and teams in 2022. They’ll be door-to-door again — probably this weekend at some point.
NASCAR needs the juice of old-school physical competition between two hard-headed racers. From the beginning of time, one entertainment constant is this: conflict sells. Hamlin ran Chastain up the racetrack and out of room and into the fence at Pocono, and went on to cross the finish line first. Afterward, he got out of the racecar and said, “What did you expect me to do?” Many folks took that as an admission of payback. Chastain even said it was a long time coming. Maybe so. But I’ve known Hamlin for a long time. I don’t believe he considers the score even.