Was NASCAR’s penalty on Newman, No. 31 team really that harsh?

Ryan Newman (left) and crew chief Luke Lambert (right) recently got on the wrong side of NASCAR.

Did NASCAR throw the book at Ryan Newman, crew chief Luke Lambert and the rest of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team for messing with their tires at Auto Club Speedway?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

It all depends on how the team performs in the next 20 races.

For the record, the team was fined 75 owner and driver points — the equivalent of nearly two full races — Lambert was fined $125,000, and he and two other team members were suspended for six races for modifying their tires to slowly let air out.

RCR has not said whether the team will appeal. 

On the face of it, the penalties certainly appear Draconian, but in reality they might not be.

It breaks down like this: Under the championship scenario NASCAR adopted last year, all one has to do to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is to win one of the 26 races in the Sprint Cup regular season and be in the top 30 in points heading into the Chase.

Last year, Denny Hamlin won the May race at Talladega, only to see his team hit with a 75-point penalty after the Brickyard 400 in July for some bodywork modifications NASCAR didn’t like in the trunk and rear fender areas of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Despite the 75-point penalty, the Talladega victory meant Hamlin easily made the Chase and, in fact, he went on to finish third in points behind champion Kevin Harvick and Newman.

Analysis: RCR penalty means NASCAR won't tolerate tire trickery

So if Newman wins a race in the regular season this year, he’ll make the Chase, same as Hamlin did last year.

But here’s the rub: Newman hasn’t won in 58 races, dating back to the 2013 Brickyard 400.

Last year, Newman made the Chase despite going winless. A total of 13 drivers qualified for the 2014 Chase because they won races in the regular season; Newman, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle made it in because they were the three winless drivers ranked highest in points. 

Had Newman gotten a 75-point penalty at this time last year, he would have missed the Chase and rookie Kyle Larson would have gotten in.

All of which sort of reinforces NASCAR’s original intent in modifying the Chase last year: Winning is everything.

And that’s especially true for teams that get caught breaking the rules.

VIDEO: NASCAR penalizes No. 31 team for manipulating tires