Ryan: Did self-policing in NASCAR reach a new level of social media shaming after Chicagoland?
When NASCAR announced a private testing ban three years ago, it also disclosed an intriguing twist in how it would monitor roughly 4 million square miles.
Posting 24-hour sentries at every short track in America wasn’t an option, of course. But the 24-hour omniscience of social media?
A reality of 21st century community policing in any neighborhood, especially NASCAR’s.
“The teams are not too shy about telling on one another,” chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said at the time. “So we know it won’t be just NASCAR (enforcing the policy). We have a lot of people out there with social media.”
That was driven home by the 2017 Cup Series playoffs’ first major penalty, which was the subject of a social media firestorm long before Chase Elliott lost 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
NASCAR officials certainly were cognizant of the potential wrongdoing to Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet well before the photos and video went viral in various corners of the Internet that purported to show aerodynamic modifications Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway that were deemed the reason for the punishment.
The sanctioning body has access to cameras around the track as well as the PRO system of about 50 high-definition cameras that provide nonstop observation of every pit stall. It certainly is plausible that officials were aware Elliott’s team might have been on the wrong side of the rulebook before the race even was over.
But the same knowledge also likely was available to teams, which work with manufacturers that employ photographers who take thousands of photos of cars on track during every race weekend. There are some moral stipulations that are followed for garage photos (as noted in this excellent USA TODAY Sports feature from 2015 by Mike Hembree), but the amount of on-track images taken are staggering. To ensure swift transmissions of massive data files to their home bases (and teams), manufacturers in NASCAR have benefited in recent years from tracks upgrading high-speed connectivity in every garage.
Was access to those vast troves of evidence put to use in attempting to try Elliott’s team in the court of public opinion before any penalty were announced, or even decided?
That’s what made this controversy feel different – and also harken back to how NASCAR implemented the testing ban. Just as it predicted teams would help with enforcement, NASCAR received photos of Elliott’s car from rival Cup teams. So did many in the news media.
It is natural to ponder whether the ensuing widespread distribution might have hastened NASCAR’s reaction – usually, penalties are announced after the offending teams are consulted and a fair amount of deliberation takes place.
In this instance, anyone with a Twitter account and following the right people – or any regular visitor to NASCAR Reddit – knew there was extra scrutiny on the No. 24, which was one of three cars taken to the R&D Center after the Chicagoland Speedway race.
If it was a coordinated and deliberate campaign by rival teams to disseminate the visual evidence of an infraction, it certainly seemed successful -- regardless of whether the worldwide whisper campaign led to NASCAR uncovering the No. 24’s penalty.
“Self policing” in NASCAR – at least in a public setting -- traditionally has fallen into the “Boys, Have at It” realm of frontier justice administered via bumper and fender by drivers who feel aggrieved.
This felt as if it were delivered via point and click by an angry army of engineers eager to drop a dime on a competitor – and perhaps deliver a warning about a new era in the fishbowl existence of these modern times.
Don’t bend that spoiler. Somebody always is watching -- and sharing on social media.
Much of the discussion around Elliott’s car centered on whether tape was applied to the spoiler. It might have seemed a relatively minor modification, but NASCAR has been warning teams for more than a year that it would punish teams for even miniscule adjustments.
In the June 7, 2016 race at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski’s team was penalized for improper body modifications, and Cup series director Richard Buck warned teams later that season at the Kentucky Speedway prerace drivers meeting and again before the Kansas Speedway race in last year’s playoffs.
Buck specifically referred to “deliberately adding tape trips,” which create more downforce by altering airflow with strategically placed tiny pieces of tape. Teams also are known to slice cars’ wraps (particularly around the wheel well area) to create more downforce.
The penalty for illegal body modifications is a pit stop for repairs under yellow (which applied in Keselowski’s case) and restarting from the rear and a drive-through penalty under green.
By virtue of a second-place finish at Chicagoland, Elliott’s car received further scrutiny in a postrace teardown at the R&D Center (after which NASCAR announced the penalty). It’s worth considering, though, if a similar situation occurred in the next nine playoff races, would NASCAR consider bringing the car to the pits based off visual evidence (and possibly punishing a team with a loss of positions even if no infraction were found)?
Or might NASCAR consider randomly inspecting cars in the impound area where officials check for five secure lug nuts before team members are allowed near the vehicles?
It isn’t unusual for NASCAR to seize tires for inspection during a race, but Sunday was unusual because of the appearance of a blue tent that housed the dunk tank used to check them.
The tent has been in use this season to establish some consistency in its at-track processes. Because its accommodations vary from each facility (some tracks have dedicated buildings for tire suppliers; others don’t), Goodyear began erecting the tent at the back of the garage near its hauler and tire staging area so that it could check for punctures and leaks more efficiently.
Of course, it also is used by NASCAR during races for random checks – O’Donnell noted on Twitter that it has happened five times in Cup this season.
That it happened to come to light during the 2017 playoff opener and involving the race’s two fastest cars (whose speed had drawn a heavy degree of scrutiny already during the weekend, whether fair or not) made it a major storyline during the race.
NASCAR’s stock answer to questions about Sunday’s tire inspection was “well, we always have done it this way.” Again, that is true, but it falls short of meeting the self-proclaimed higher standards of transparency that officials are striving to reach, and it also implies there was a lack of newsworthiness, which is false.
This was the first time a random tire inspection was witnessed in a conspicuous-looking tent on national TV, and the intimation is that the teams involved might have done something wrong.
A better answer from NASCAR would have been: “With the intense pressure of the playoffs beginning, we reserve the right to hold every team to the highest standard of the rules to ensure fairness. We will be doing random inspections over these 10 races because a level playing field is at a premium, and we want to guarantee that to the competitors. The tires from the 18 and 78 checked out OK.”
There has been much debate about whether NASCAR needs to be in the business of getting embroiled in midweek penalty discussions, but somehow the debate over the illegal modifications made by Elliott’s team didn’t feel in the same vein as the taint that hung over Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory.
Maybe it was because it didn’t involve a winning car, but Elliott’s penalty also seemed to say more about the heightened urgency of the playoffs. Hendrick Motorsports has lacked speed during the second half of the regular season. In the cat-and-mouse game of testing the limits allowed by officials, why shouldn’t it be worth the risk to a team desperately in search of a breakthrough?
Similarly, the discussion about NASCAR briefly confiscating the tires of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch also didn’t detract from the race; it blended into the main storyline of the weekend, i.e. the recent dominance of Toyotas (and the grumbling it caused by Brad Keselowski).
NASCAR naturally wants to keep the focus on tight battles for position, but in a race decided by a 7.1-second margin of victory, the hunt for compelling angles can lead elsewhere. In both the instances of tires and tape that mysteriously might have been applied to the spoiler, it made for healthy discussions.
After the Chicagoland win, Truex seems even more of a lock to reach the championship finale, but Kyle Larson slipped in another reminder that the tables might turn at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Obviously, (Truex) is really good,” Larson told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast after finishing fifth Sunday. “He could probably win nine out of 10, but if we get to Homestead, we’ll have a shot.”
Larson, who said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast last week that he thinks Truex “definitely” will be in the championship round, considers Miami his favorite track and with good reason. The 1.5-mile progressively banked oval favors drivers such as Larson who prefer the high lane. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led a race-high 132 of 268 laps in a runner-up finish to champion Jimmie Johnson last season.
“I’m not surprised that Larson said that,” Truex said with a chuckle when told of Larson’s comment by NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after his win. “He’s pretty good at Homestead, but we made some big gains there last year. That used to be one of my best racetracks. I have a feeling if we can get there, it’s going to be a hell of a battle.”
Crew chief Cole Pearn also laughed when told of what Larson said.
“I agree; I think (Larson) is the one to beat when it comes to Homestead,” Pearn told NBC Sports. “I think looking at the last couple of years, they’ve been so, so good there. So it’s definitely our weak point that we have to figure out. We’re fortunate to have a two-day test coming up in October that we can hopefully sort out some of the things that ail us there. I think if we play our cards right, we’ll have a shot at it, and that’s really our only option.
“With this one-race championship deal, you’ve got to be good at Homestead. So it’s a weak spot for us that we got to be good at when it comes time.”
Furniture Row Racing skipped the test at Miami last year, raising some eyebrows around the garage, but Truex is enthused about next month’s session. “It definitely will be big,” he said. “We’ll be there. We know what to focus on. I think we have a good game plan going on, but Homestead is a hard place to test. It’s one of those tracks that on race weekend, it’s always a lot different. You have to stay open-minded. You can’t just learn a bunch at the test, go to the track and say this is what we’re going to do no matter what because it could bite you.”
On the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, analyst Steve Letarte said the preponderance of visual evidence was what surprised him the most about the Elliott penalty.
“That’s why I’m really so shocked by this,” Letarte said. “What a brazen move. There was no secret there were going to be photos of this car on the racetrack. That shocked me about it.”
The former crew chief also said it was a “moral struggle” watching it unfold on social media.
“I’m not sure I like the strategy or goal of whoever it was to put those pictures out there unless they’re going to cover all 40 cars the same way with some sort of moral requirement of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be Big Brother to everyone in the field,’ ” he said. “That’s the bigger problem I have with this than anything. I struggle with this starting on a social site. I don’t want there to be a million NASCAR officials out there.”
During the podcast, Letarte also discussed Kasey Kahne’s crew chief change and the state of Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch’s pit crew swap, the strength of Toyota Racing Development and whether there was deeper motive behind Keselowski’s words last week.
You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.