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Why NASCAR took a strong stance on Hendrick, Hamlin actions

Updated Mar. 16, 2023 8:10 p.m. EDT

NASCAR doesn’t always penalize teams after it confiscates pieces at the racetrack.

Last year, when Penske and RFK had their wheels taken, the teams argued they made modifications for safety reasons that they felt were permissible. NASCAR eventually agreed, or at least saw enough of a reasoning that it didn’t penalize the teams as those changes were soon going to be legal.

So maybe that gave Hendrick Motorsports teams and fans a little false hope that there could be some wiggle room after NASCAR confiscated their louvers following practice Friday at Phoenix.

Louvers are supplied to each team through a supplier. They are different for each manufacturer, but the purpose is the same — they sit atop the radiator exit ducts to direct air out of the hood vents. They look like shutters but all of the panels are connected to one frame.

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Teams have had issues with the louvers fitting with the new hoods and had been talking with NASCAR about what could be tweaked to make sure they fit.

But even with these discussions, with Hendrick having won the previous week — and then winning again Sunday at Phoenix — NASCAR would have lost a lot of credibility in the garage if it didn’t penalize Hendrick if it felt the louvers were modified.

That’s one reason why NASCAR hammered the Hendrick teams, as well as that of Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley for the same issue, with four-race suspensions to the crew chiefs, a $100,000 fine to each crew chief (typically paid by the teams) and 100-point penalties to the drivers and teams.

There are other reasons — it seems NASCAR officials were angry with Hendrick over the weekend. NASCAR executives had promised harsh penalties for messing with parts supplied by single-sourced vendors. The whole concept of this car is to reduce costs by not having teams develop and create pieces — they all get them from the same supplier.

NASCAR rarely talks after issuing penalties, and the fact it put Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer on a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon with media showed it wanted to give at least some side of its story because it likely didn’t want Hendrick to control the narrative.

Discussing Hendrick car modifiers

NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer said it was obvious that Hendrick cars had louvers modified in areas that weren’t approved.

Sawyer wouldn’t be specific to the area that was modified.

"The area they weren't supposed to work in is the best I can tell you," Sawyer said about the area that was modified. "There's areas that have been approved. And we've worked with the teams on the parts on their fitment and things of that nature.

"This one rose to a level that was way beyond that."

Here's the narrative of select quotes from the Sawyer Zoom:

–"It was obvious to us that these parts had been modified in an area that wasn't approved. This is a consistent penalty with what we went through last year with other competitors. ... We were put in a position that we didn’t feel like there was no other way but to write a penalty."

–"There is components we have approved working directly with the industry and the garage and a process to do that. This area was not approved. We felt like the communication line between NASCAR and the garage was done properly. And obviously, they were outside the boundaries."

–"We don't normally get into the intent. But I think it's fair to say that there could be [aerodynamic] performance around these modifications. Let’s also give credit where credit's due — they went out and still had an outstanding race on Sunday and performed at a high level without those modifications."

And here’s the narrative from a statement from Hendrick Motorsports, which is appealing the penalty:

–"Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR."

–"Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers."

–"Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection."

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? That’s for an appeals board to decide. NASCAR’s appeals administrator chooses three people from a list of appeals panelists to hear the appeal.

The appeals board did change some penalties last year (which typically is a rare occurrence) as it tried to be fair and set some parameters for NASCAR’s new Next Gen car. No appeal date has been set.

The Hendrick penalties weren’t the only controversial ones issued Wednesday.

Denny Hamlin received a 25-point penalty (his team was not penalized in the owner points) and a $50,000 fine for wrecking Ross Chastain in the final laps. It cost them about 15-16 spots apiece.

NASCAR docked Hamlin under the rules of:

"Attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Race or championship" and "Wrecking or spinning another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from Competition as a result."

Hamlin-Chastain feud

Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain make contact on the final Phoenix restart. Here's a closer look at what happened.

Hamlin and Chastain have had a yearlong feud. At the time, Hamlin knew his car was not handling well and as it slid on the track, Hamlin made a decision:

"I’m about to finish in the mid-teens and I said, ‘You’re coming with me, buddy,’" Hamlin said on his "Actions Detrimental" podcast Monday. "It wasn’t a mistake. I let the wheel go and I said, ‘He’s coming with me.’"

Sawyer said that NASCAR would have viewed that as a racing incident if Hamlin had not admitted to wrecking Chastain.

"We would have viewed that as a racing incident," Sawyer said. "But then 24 hours later, you have a competitor that has gone on a podcast — which I will say we're delighted that Denny has a podcast; we think that's great interaction with the fans — but when you start admitting that you have intentionally done something that would compromise the results of the end of the race, then that rises to the level that we're going to get involved.

"There's no other way to look at that. We were going to get involved in those situations."

Ironically, NASCAR actually took out the word "intentionally" as part of the rule on "wrecking or spinning another vehicle." It did that because a team could argue that while contact was intentional, the wrecking or spinning was not.

"You look at our athletes at the highest level of motorsports in North America and sending the message that it's OK to tell somebody that, ‘I'm going to wreck you’ and then do that — that's not the message that we need to be sending to anybody," Sawyer said.

"We don't need to be sending that to young drivers that are starting out in lower levels and aspire to be at the NASCAR Cup level in some period of time. That's not the message that we need to be sending."

Hamlin won’t appeal.

The wording of the rule certainly leaves it up to some judgment. Drivers have contact all the time and in the natural battle of racing, the bump-and-run is a known move. What happens when a car gets bumped varies with each incident.

By penalizing Hamlin, NASCAR potentially could open itself up to criticism any time cars have contact. But NASCAR also knows that if it allows a driver to say he did something intentionally, that could mean others would try to use the same argument when done in a more egregious or non-safe action.

Hamlin obviously wouldn’t have said anything he thought would get him fined (even if his podcast is named "Actions Detrimental," the wording NASCAR uses in penalty reports for actions it feels poorly reflect on the sport). He had to figure this was more of a "boys have at it" instance where NASCAR will allow some contact.

Corey LaJoie, who also has a podcast, said Hamlin will learn what he can say and what he can’t.

"There’s a lot of hot-button topics that he has to kind of talk his way around," LaJoie said about Hamlin’s role as a playoff driver and team co-owner.

"I’m glad I’m not in that position that he is. ... He stuck his foot in his mouth this week, but he’s a big boy. He’s going to figure it out."

What To Watch For

Ross Chastain was involved in incidents in each of the Atlanta races last year — and still finished second in both. He combined to lead 74 laps in those two races. He will find his way near the front on Sunday at Atlanta.

Obviously, from above, watch if Chastain and Denny Hamlin are near each other. Chastain and Hamlin had one of their 2022 incidents at Atlanta.

But with the superspeedway nature of the racing, look for drivers such as Corey LaJoie to be in the mix. LaJoie was leading the race in the waning laps last year before Chase Elliott was able to snag the lead and throw a block that resulted with LaJoie in the fence.

Michael McDowell has had solid runs lately and is a good racer on these tracks. The Kaulig cars haven’t had great runs but AJ Allmendinger and Justin Haley have a history of working well together.

It all could come down to pit road as NASCAR has moved the pit-road commitment line to Turn 3. It will be new for drivers if they are coming down under green. And whether it’s green or under yellow, they’ll have to make sure they don’t speed while on the apron between Turns 3-4.

Thinking Out Loud

Does consistency matter when it comes to rules from race to race?

Yes.

It is natural that different sizes and styles of tracks will have different rules. But the more rules that can be the same, the better.

So NASCAR adding the choose rule to road courses is a good thing. The choose rule sets an area where drivers must choose a lane for the restart. A driver sometimes can move up a few rows than where the driver would have naturally started if the drivers in front choose the preferred lane.

Typically, it is done right after the start-finish line and race control and spotters have a good view. But on road courses, drivers don’t get the "1 lap to go until green" notification until they are actually less than one lap to go (that saves time since a road course often is two or more miles in length).

So NASCAR will need to have a camera set up so race control can officiate the choose area. And teams will need to assign spotters for that area who likely don’t spot on a regular basis in order to let the drivers know what lanes drivers are choosing in front of them. 

And it will be rare for a driver to give up track position for a preferred lane because a road course, naturally with turns, doesn’t have a preferred groove.

But it just is simpler for fans to have as many of the same rules every week as possible. So this change, which now means all races have the choose rule, is a good one.

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They Said It

"I’m not going to sit here on this podcast and ever lie to you guys and say, ‘Well this is an accident’ when it’s not. It wasn’t an accident. I meant to put him in the fence." —Denny Hamlin addressing his intentional collision with Ross Chastain

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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