No skirting the issue: Controversial side skirts on NASCAR's radar
When the Challenger Round of Chase for the Sprint Cup kicked off back at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski scored the win and sent a message to the field his team was one of those to beat for the title.
After the race, the then-road manager for fellow Chase driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. went on Twitter and accused Keselowski and Team Penske of cheating with their flared side skirt.
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion responded by saying those in glass houses should be careful of throwing stones. A couple days later, Mike Hoag resigned for his comments on Twitter, but the flaring continued to develop throughout the Sprint Cup garage.
By the time the Chase moved on to Kansas Speedway to kick off the Contender Round three weeks later, nearly every car in the top 15 finished the day with flared side skirts.
With so many teams utilizing this strategy, it raises many questions about the purpose, the end result and whether NASCAR is looking at this as something that could potentially violate the current rules.
While the flaring of side skirts is now gaining some attention from media and fans, many crew chiefs in the Sprint Cup garage indicated this is something that has been taking place for quite some time.
"I've been around this sport for 18 years, and it's been around that long," said Hendrick Motorsports' Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Jeff Gordon. "I think the media is just picking up on it. There's some slight aerodynamic advantages there. In the old cars we used to pull the front fenders out and the side skirts out. It's nothing new, and I think everyone knows to exploit it. I think people are taking it further and further so it's more visible and people are picking up on it."
"It's something we've done for the last 10 years," Richard Childress Racing driver Ryan Newman said about the skirt flares. "It's just a matter of what the guys can do on the pit stop without slowing the pit stop down. Any advantage is an advantage, so you try to add it all up by the end of the day."
While most in the garage understood the benefits and details of flaring the side skirt, Kevin Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said it did not really become rampant practice until NASCAR allowed Keselowski and his Paul Wolfe-led team to get by with it at the beginning of the Chase.
"I don't think anyone in the garage ever thought NASCAR would let everyone do it," he said. "Once somebody did it at Chicago and nobody said anything about it, there were 10 people the next week and then it turned into 15 people the next week and 20 the next week. At this point of the season, if you've already let one person do it, you've got to let everyone else did it. You can't just say, 'Hey, we're not doing that anymore,' after you've left someone win a race with it."
There is little doubt the flaring of the side skirt adds more downforce to the car, but Childers was also quick to point out "it's not huge, but you have to take everything you can get."
Matt Kenseth crew chief Jason Ratcliff echoed Childers' thoughts, saying the flare did not provide much downforce, but every little bit helps and if someone else is trying it, you should, too.
"It's just there, it's something you can do on a pit stop, and as long as NASCAR's going to let you do it, you have to take advantage of it, right?" he said. "If you see your competition doing it and getting away with it, you better join the ball game."
With NASCAR arguably placing teams in a fairly tight box when it comes to innovation and the rules, the practice of tampering with side skirts is a gray area of the rulebook.
Crew chiefs are now working closely with their pit crew members to coordinate the proper time on the stop to make the adjustment, all while completing the stop in less than 12 seconds.
One of the best innovators to ever walk through the NASCAR garage, Ray Evernham told FOXSports.com that while there are some benefits to flaring the side skirts, this is simply another case of monkey-see, monkey-do in the garage.
"We used to play with the tape on the grille," said Evernham, a winner of three Sprint Cup championships as crew chief for Gordon. "You could mess with people by changing the tape on your grille or changing something that didn't matter at all. We were all like that. If you were beating me and your car had a big red X on it, I'd put a big red X on mine. You'll just do whatever it takes."
Evernham argued that the flaring of the side skirts could easily happen on a pit stop while pulling the rear tire off the car, but he said once someone started doing it, "now everyone's got to have it."
"It's one of the things that's still fun in the garage," he said. "Trying to psyche each other out and play games."
NASCAR spokesperson Kristi King told FOXSports.com the side-skirt flaring is something the sanctioning body is "constantly monitoring," but that everything the teams are currently doing falls within the parameters of the current rule book.
Each car has to pass multiple rounds of both pre- and post-race inspection, King pointed out, and so far nothing the teams have done during the Chase races has pushed the limits spelled out in the inspection process.
While NASCAR has yet to find real issue with the side-skirt flares, King indicated a lot of this is taking place and unfolding in the middle of a heated Chase battle. As this trend continues to develop, NASCAR may take a deeper look at it during the off-season, but King wouldn't rule out the sanctioning body doing something sooner "if it gets out of hand."
With so much on the line and competition at such a level playing field these days, teams will do all they can to find advantages over their competitors. The flaring of the side skirts seems to be the next evolution in that process, as teams try to get the upper hand in the final and crucial weeks of the season with a title on the line.