by Ryan Isley
Denny Hamlin currently finds himself in a tie for the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings with just one race left before the Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The question is should he even be in the Chase at all?
When NASCAR changed the format of the Chase entering this season, they did so without figuring in one major factor – penalties that occur during the season. When Hamlin’s car failed to pass inspection at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, the driver and team were each docked 75 points in the standings. The deduction dropped them from 11th to 21st in the standings at the time. The infraction also led to crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill being suspended for six races and a $125,000 fine for Grubb.
Sounds like a harsh penalty, right?
Sure – if NASCAR was still using the old system of qualifying for the Chase. The problem is that with the new system, the penalties didn’t really penalize the team. They were already a winner earlier in the season, meaning their spot in the Chase was pretty much already secured. So what if Hamlin loses 75 points? The points just reset when the Chase begins, anyway.
Had this been last season, the penalty would have cost Hamlin entry into the Chase, as he would have finished 19th in points and just missed out with Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch earning the wild card spots. Without the 75-point penalty, Hamlin would have finished 14th in points under the previous system and picked up the second wild card behind Kahne.
But because of the emphasis placed on winning with the new system, Hamlin had nothing to worry about once he picked up the win in Talladega. Therefore, a mere deduction of 75 points wasn’t going to stand in the way of him making the Chase. If you take away the win, Hamlin misses the Chase by finishing 19th in points and not having a win to fall back on.
This is nothing personal against Hamlin; it just happened that he was the driver involved. But going forward, this is where NASCAR needs to step in and make the penalties harsher to avoid teams trying to cheat the system once they have already been to victory lane.
If a car is determined to be in violation in any race leading up to the Chase, any wins that driver has earned up to that point should no longer count towards eligibility into the Chase. Any races the driver wins after that, however, would count and put the driver back in the Chase. Using Hamlin as an example – his at the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway prior to his penalties would no longer have counted as his win to get into the Chase. Had he won a race between then and the beginning of the Chase, that win would have counted.
This may seem unfair to take away a win that was earned without any inspection violations, but it would go a long way in keeping teams honest. What deterrent do teams have now that would keep them from trying to get away with things once they have that win secured? Fines and points – even owner’s points – just aren’t enough. You need to hit teams where it hurts. By taking away their bid into the Chase, it will make teams think twice, especially the closer they get to the regular season being over. Nobody will want that pressure of having to win again once they have already done it.
But for the time being? The rules are the rules (well, until NASCAR decides they aren’t, which is a whole other argument). Under this new system, Denny Hamlin just might be racing next week for a championship. If that happens, he can thank NASCAR for their oversight.