AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — There’s a problem with NASCAR and its new race car that is transforming the sport.
We know that NASCAR discovered that RFK Racing had made an illegal modification to a supplier-provided spec part for the car. Then NASCAR buried Brad Keselowski and his team with season-ending penalties to seemingly make it clear that the series is serious about its Next Gen car.
What we don’t know: What the No. 6 team has been accused of or where it was trying to gain an advantage. NASCAR has not made public what it found during a “teardown” inspection last week at its North Carolina facility. Keselowski doesn’t speak, citing his continued attractiveness.
It was just one big speculative mystery this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, where everyone wondered why Keselowski was handed a staggering 100-point penalty. He dropped the 2012 champion, in his first season as a driver and co-owner of Jack Roush’s renowned team, to finish last in the standings among full-time Cup Series drivers.
Driver after driver, including Sunday’s winner, asked NASCAR to reveal the details. The Next Gen has been the great equalizer for the first six races and has delivered on everything promised, with much improved racing and parity across the field.
Sophomore team Trackhouse Racing suddenly looks very, very good, and new driver Ross Chastain scored a breakthrough first win. Trackhouse, owned by former driver Justin Marks and Pitbull, is now a playoff team capable of competing with the big boys.
When the penalties against RFK were announced, Marks immediately called Trackhouse with the directive to stick to the rulebook.
“I want to know exactly what they did,” Marks said. “What if we get two parts from the same supplier and they don’t look exactly the same? We’re going straight to NASCAR. That is a great pity. I don’t want them to penalize our team.”
NASCAR president Steve Phelps told The Associated Press on Saturday that he didn’t know why race officials hadn’t disclosed what was found on the No. 6. Conversations in the garage centered on a rear bumper purportedly modified, but no one knows for sure.
This is counterintuitive to the core mission of Next Gen, an industry-wide project that required full buy-in from every stakeholder. The car is supposed to be the best thing for the series, a way for less wealthy teams to compete, as the basics are the same for all.
NASCAR rewrote its penalty system before the Next Gen’s debut to warn that it won’t mess around when it comes to the car. In addition to the points penalty, Keselowski’s crew chief was suspended four races and fined $100,000. And, if Keselowski somehow recovers to make the playoffs, he will be docked 10 playoff points at the start of the championship streak.
Marks and the owners of Spire Motorsports told the AP that they have told their employees they will be fired if they play outside the rules. Trackhouse and Spire are two of the small new teams that benefit the most from the next generation.
“I think if you ask everybody in the garage, we’d all like to see what they did,” Spire co-owner Jeff Dickerson said. “In the past they used to show the parts, mainly to educate, so I think it would show that they know how to keep an eye on this car and that they are not afraid to drop the hammer.
“This new car is our bet, this was the mortgage, and we told our team on day 1 that we will not be the example. So we want to know what was done to that car because we won’t be caught in the same position.”
NASCAR for decades displayed confiscated parts outside its trackside office, a display of embarrassment that gave teams a glimpse of a rival’s attempted cheating. Kevin Harvick said NASCAR should start showing the seized pieces again.
Keselowski’s crew chief Matt McCall may not believe he was cheating, and that must almost certainly be part of the defense in RFK’s appeal – the newness of Next Gen is still such a learning process that a No. 6 rebuilding team inadvertently stumbled. in an infraction.
Before the Daytona 500, NASCAR seized wheels from RFK and Team Penske for modifications. Ford’s team argued that the changes were made in the interests of safety and that they alerted NASCAR before they did so. NASCAR let both teams go without penalty.
Some wondered if NASCAR blistered RFK because the team had already tested inspectors once.
“The wheels at Daytona? That was a safety issue,” Penske driver Joey Logano said. “This? We don’t know what this is, but I’m pretty sure it scares everyone.”
Keselowski remained upbeat, telling his team before Sunday’s race that “I know it’s been a tough week. Let’s fight really hard and show them what we’re made of.” He finished 14th, but with the penalty sits 34th in the standings, below David Ragan, who has driven in four fewer races than Keselowski.
Keselowski still thinks he can salvage the season and make the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
The industry deserves to understand how it fell into this hole.
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