NASCAR’s cul­ture of cheat­ing un­masked dur­ing the play­offs

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS -

AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) — The credo in NASCAR has al­ways been “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” and that has never changed de­spite se­ries ef­fort to keep things on the up-and-up.

Now that cul­ture has resur­faced again and at a most in­op­por­tune time for the be­lea­guered se­ries.

There is one race to go to set the cham­pi­onship field, Sun­day in Phoenix, and star driver Kevin Har­vick has been snared in the lat­est scan­dal. NASCAR found Har­vick had an il­le­gal race-win­ning car — his sec­ond of the sea­son — af­ter his vic­tory at Texas Mo­tor Speed­way earned him an au­to­matic berth in the Nov. 18 ti­tle race in Florida.

The is­sue was with a spoiler that had been mod­i­fied to give Har vick an aero­dy­namic ad­van­tage as he dom­i­nated and won for a Cup Se­ries-high eighth time this sea­son. Just how much of an ad­van­tage Har­vick had is ir­rel­e­vant: The lev­els of de­ceit NASCAR be­lieves Stew­art-Haas Rac­ing went to were so de­vi­ous the in­tent can’t be ques­tioned.

Once NASCAR had the car back from Texas and in its Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, the spoiler was re­moved and de­ter­mined not to be the part sup­plied by the ven­dor. In­stead, NASCAR be­lieves SHR made its own spoiler, passed it off as one from the manda­tory ven­dor and used it to help Har­vick win.

The de­tails were un­veiled late Wed­nes­day, 10 hours af­ter Har­vick’s spot in the fi­nale was re­voked. NASCAR has for sev­eral years re­fused to give specifics about in­frac­tions — keep­ing se­cret ideas on how to game the sys­tem — but re­versed course on the Har­vick penalty be­cause of mount­ing crit­i­cism about the sever­ity of his pun­ish­ment. Not only did Har­vick lose his spot in the fi­nal four at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way, but he must race the fi­nal two weeks of the sea­son with­out his crew chief and car chief.

Scott Miller, NASCAR’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of com­pe­ti­tion, said he felt SHR took the no­tion of push­ing bound­aries and ex­plor­ing tech­nol­ogy “into border­line ridicu­lous ter­ri­tory.”

With the stakes so high this week­end at Phoenix, where seven driv­ers will by vy­ing for three open spots in the cham­pi­onship race, NASCAR will check spoil­ers at the track.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that now we’ll be pulling spoil­ers off and hav­ing to do an­other in­spec­tion when the teams should re­ally be bring­ing le­gal cars to the race track,” Miller said.

SHR has not chal­lenged NASCAR’s cheat­ing al­le­ga­tion. The team said it would not ap­peal the penalty and vice pres­i­dent of com­pe­ti­tion Greg Zi­padelli said in a state­ment “NASCAR de­ter­mined we ven­tured into an area not ac­com­mo­dated by its rule book.” The team has not made any mem­bers avail­able for com­ment, and Har­vick is not sched­uled to speak to the me­dia at Phoenix, where he is a nine-time win­ner. One of his vic­to­ries came in the spring, part of a three-race win­ning streak marred by an il­le­gal car at Las Ve­gas one week ear­lier.

The lat­est in­frac­tion raises ques­tions about whether SHR has “ven­tured into an area not ac­com­mo­dated” by NASCAR’s rule­book with its other driv­ers. Its en­tire four­car lineup — Har­vick, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola — is still el­i­gi­ble for the ti­tle race.

It wasn’t just SHR last week­end, ei­ther. NASCAR took three cars back to its R&D Cen­ter af­ter Texas and all three failed tear­down in­spec­tions. Ryan Blaney’s team was pun­ished and so was the team for Erik Jones.

If the only three cars in­spected failed, what about the other 37 cars in Sun­day’s field?

“We cer­tainly can’t bring the 40-car field back to R&D,” Miller said, elab­o­rat­ing on how is­sues get missed at the track. “We’re un­der time con­straints at the race track to do th­ese in­spec­tions. We have small win­dows and tight win­dows to get the in­spec­tions done, and we might spend in the neigh­bor­hood of five min­utes with each of the 40 cars for the three-hour win­dow that we have for in­spec­tion. To think that we can scru­ti­nize a car as good in five min­utes and we can in three hours at the R&D Cen­ter is a bit un­re­al­is­tic.”

The last big scan­dal in NASCAR was in 2013, when Michael Wal­trip Rac­ing ma­nip­u­lated the fin­ish of a race at Rich­mond to try to get Mar­tin Truex Jr. into the play­offs. It led to a larger NASCAR in­ves­ti­ga­tion that un­cov­ered at least one other case of race ma­nip­u­la­tion.

The lat­est scan­dal may be the tip­ping point for a re­vamped penalty sys­tem next sea­son. Miller said the sanc­tion­ing body will look dur­ing the off­sea­son at tougher penal­ties if a team that can’t even pass the first round of in­spec­tion.

“We re­al­ize that we kind of prob­a­bly need to ramp up the sever­ity of what goes on at the race track, and we’re hop­ing that we can change the cul­ture to where we don’t have to play this cat-and­mouse game with the teams all the time,” Miller said.

What hap­pens if a car fails in­spec­tion af­ter win­ning the ti­tle? It wasn’t un­til Wed­nes­day morn­ing, long af­ter Sun­day’s race, that NASCAR re­vealed Har­vick’s car had failed in­spec­tion.

Miller vowed in­tense scrutiny on the four cham­pi­onship­con­tend­ing cars at Homestead, and said the post-race pro­ce­dure is sim­i­lar to the Day­tona 500, where en­gines are ex­am­ined at the track af­ter the race.

“Know­ing that so much is on the line, we can con­cen­trate on those cars a lit­tle bit more than we can the 40-car field dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son,” Miller said. “So we’ll just ramp up the in­ten­sity of keep­ing peo­ple with eyes on those cars through­out the week­end and scru­ti­nize those cars heav­ily, both be­fore and af­ter the race.”

AP PHOTO

Kevin Har­vick smiles in the garage area be­fore prac­tice a race last month at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way.

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