Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, GA — March 17, 2023
NASCAR’s three national series, Craftsman Trucks, Xfinity Cars, and the Cup Series, all visit Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend for two days of racing. While the conversation should focus on how exciting the action has been since the track was reconfigured with higher banks prior to its 2022 events. The Spring race saw 46 lead changes between 20 drivers and Superspeedway style drafting.
Unfortunately, the storylines coming into the weekend have been dominated by NASCAR fines and penalties. Let’s catch up on the latest.
Denny Hamlin vs. Ross Chastain
Last year, one of the big headlines was the number of incidents between Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain. It seemed like every week, one of the pair was running into the other, making threats on social media or impeding progress on the track. You thought that was over after the Phoenix race in November? Nope!
Hamlin intentionally ran Chastain into the wall late in the race last week when the series ran its Spring race at the track in the desert outside of Phoenix.
NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $50,000 and docked him 25 driver points for his actions with Ross Chastain late in Sunday’s Cup Series race. On the next-to-last lap of the overtime, Hamlin pushed high into Turn 1 in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car and took Chastain and his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing machine toward the wall, making contact. Hamlin, who was in sixth place before the race’s final restart, finished 23rd, one spot ahead of Chastain. They were the final two cars on the lead lap.
The part of the NASCAR Rule Book specifically mentioned in the penalty was Section 4.4: NASCAR Member Code of Conduct. Within that section, these items were detailed: B. 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. D. Actions NASCAR finds to be detrimental to stock racing or NASCAR.
Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said in a Wednesday afternoon video call with reporters that each instance of on-track retaliation and contact between rivals is handled on a case-by-case basis. But Sawyer added that Hamlin’s admission of intent — and its impact on the two drivers’ finishing positions — was the tipping point for competition officials in their post-race evaluations.
“They’re all individual, right? They’re unique to themselves,” Sawyer said. “When you look at this one this past weekend, we would have viewed that as a racing incident, but then it’s 24 hours later, and 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, interacts 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 a level that we’re going to get involved. There’s no other way to look at that. We’re going to get involved in those situations. We’ve been consistent in the past with that, and we will be consistent going forward.”
If you missed it, here is the video of the incident.
Hamlin posted on social media that he would not appeal the penalty.
After Phoenix, Hamlin was seventh in the points standings and had one top-10 finish in the first four races this season. Chastain was third in the standings and had one top-five finish and two top-10 finishes this season. After the penalty, Hamlin dropped to 12th while Chastain moved up to second.
On Monday, Hamlin spoke on his Actions Detrimental podcast, hosted by Dirty Mo Media, and said the move was intentional and also a measure of revenge for previous run-ins the two drivers have had on the track. The most recent incident was in the preseason Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles when a collision with Chastain’s car sent Hamlin’s No. 11 looping.
“When he knows it’s coming, he is the hardest guy to wreck on the planet,” Hamlin said on the podcast. “But I just, I wanted to get back to racing honestly with him, and I think that that’s a lot of the conversation that we had after. … He came up to me, and he says, ‘I guess I deserve it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ …. So we talked, and I think that we are in a better place where I think we’re willing to put the past behind us, and I think that we’re going to judge each other from this point forward, and I think that’s the fairest way to do it.”
Hendrick Motorsports Big No-No
In other penalties announced this week, NASCAR hit each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four Cup Series teams and the No. 31 team of Kaulig Racing with L2-level infractions for unapproved modifications to parts.
The Nos. 5, 9, 24, 31, and 48 teams all lost 100 team and driver points (with the exception of No. 9, which did not lose driver points) and 10 playoff points. The crew chiefs for each team were suspended for four races and fined $100,000.
Hendrick Motorsports released a statement saying it would appeal the penalties but would not request to defer the suspensions. Kaulig Racing also released a statement noting it will appeal the penalty but will request to defer crew chief Trent Owens’ suspension until the appeal hearing.
Before the penalties, Bowman was atop the Cup Series standings with 154 points and had top-10 finishes in all four races this season. Byron was fourth in the standings, and Larson was fifth, while Berry continued to fill in for the injured Elliott, who underwent surgery on March 3 for a broken left leg and is expected to miss six weeks. After the penalty, Bowman dropped to 23rd in the standings, Byron 29th, and Larson 32nd.
Who and Why
The penalties occurred after NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers from all five cars before Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway. The Hendrick teams involved were the No. 5 driven by Kyle Larson, the No. 9 of Josh Berry (subbing for the injured Chase Elliott), the No. 24 of William Byron, and the No. 48 of Alex Bowman; the No. 31 of Justin Haley was the Kaulig team involved. The respective crew chiefs fined and receiving suspensions were Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle, and Blake Harris for Hendrick and Trent Owens for Kaulig.
The hood louvers — which you can see on this Next Gen 3D model — are openings or vents in the hood that serve as a release point for ducts that transfer air out of the radiator. The system is intended to decouple engine performance from aero performance, offsetting the practice of teams taping off air intakes and placing undue pressure and heat strain on the car’s engine.
The NASCAR Rule Book section specifically referencing the penalties was Section 184.108.40.206.A, which deals with how the radiator duct is assembled. The teams were found with unapproved modification of a single-source vendor-supplied part.
Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, explained the decision to impose the penalties.
Still Having Tire and Wheel Problems
Competition officials also issued a safety violation for the loss or separation of an improperly installed tire/wheel from the vehicle (Sections 220.127.116.11 A&C) to the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, driven by Aric Almirola. Crew members Ryan Mulder (front tire changer) and Sean Cotten (jack) were suspended for two races.
One of the big changes on the Next-Gen car, when it was introduced last year, was the single lug nut that holds the wheel to the spindle or axle. Crews struggled with getting the nut properly secured, and lost wheels were almost a weekly occurrence. NASCAR stiffened the penalties for the infraction, and most of the issues were cleaned up. However, we continue to see wheels coming off cars in 2023.
How the penalties will affect the playoff chances of these drivers remains to be seen. Last year Brad Keselowski was unable to overcome the deficit created by the loss of points and missed the postseason.
Follow The Lasco Press for all the latest updates on NASCAR’s Cup Series.