Admittedly, attempting to reign in teams’ efforts to alter what is basically a spec car comes at a cost, particularly in unwelcome headlines and media focus on issues other than competition.
Not issuing those penalties, however, also comes at a cost – to teams, which is a big reason why the Next Gen car was developed in the first place.
“It’s essential that we keep the business model around Next Gen at an equitable level. If we don’t do that, then we’re all going to be right back to where we were with the Gen-6 model and that wasn’t a sustainable business model, as we all know,” Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, told Motorsport.com Saturday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“The owners, in collaboration with them, signed off on this car and they also signed off on the deterrent model. They said from Day 1 that we needed to hold them accountable, the penalties need to be harsh, and we need to write them.”
Enforcing the rule book
So far this season, that is exactly what NASCAR has found itself doing.
While there were instances NASCAR issued penalties to teams last season for modifications to the Next Gen car in its debut year, they were relatively few.
This season, NASCAR has already issued eight penalties to teams for making unapproved modifications to single-sourced parts or making unapproved changes to areas of the car (cockpit and undercarriage).
Six of the eight penalties have been assessed to Hendrick Motorsports, one to Kaulig Racing and one most recently to Richard Childress Racing.
Five of the issues were found during at-track pre-race inspection while three were discovered after NASCAR brought cars back to its R&D Center for additional inspection following races.
While the severity of some of the penalties has been altered on appeal, in each case that has so far been appealed, the teams were found to have committed the violations.
“Unfortunately, that’s what we’re having to do right now,” Sawyer said. “We don’t enjoy writing penalties, but it is our responsibility from the league’s perspective to be good stewards and good custodians of the garage.
“We need to make sure everybody feels like when they walk in, that they have a level playing field to play on.”
That has always been true but has become even more important with the Next Gen car and its efforts to reduce teams’ costs.
The Next Gen car differs greatly in concept from previous NASCAR stock car designs as it incorporates many common parts manufactured by over 30 single-source suppliers, including the new common Technique-supplied chassis. Dallara helped engineer the car overall.
In the past, most teams would build the tube-frame chassis and the majority of internal components themselves, which is an expensive process.
Brad Keselowski, RFK Racing, Fastenal Ford Mustang
Photo by: Rachel Schuoler / NKP / Motorsport Images
Just last season, Brad Keselowski – now a driver and co-owner of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing – was one of the first to have his team get hit with a penalty for modifications to the Next Gen car.
However, he also remained a champion of NASCAR’s efforts to hold teams accountable.
“As a sport, the easiest way to control the costs is to just dole those penalties out like candy when anybody gets outside the box and are playing those games,” Keselowski said then.
“I know after our issues, we went through our entire company and said, ‘No more games.’ Nothing goes in these cars – period.”
So, why, then, do teams seem not to have learned their lesson from last season?
“It’s been the DNA of the garage area for years,” Sawyer said. “One thing we have to change is the culture within the race teams and the garage area with this new car. I think a lot of it is them testing the waters.
“You think about over 74-plus years how the garage has operated, and I don’t know that we’re going to turn that culture around in 12 to 16 months. But we will stay the course.
“We’re not going to get lazy. We’re going to continue to take cars home. We’re going to continue to look at cars.”
Keeping up with the team
Aside from inspection at the track, NASCAR’s biggest tool to monitor what teams are doing is claiming cars after races and taking them back to its R&D Center to be torn down.
NASCAR can take any car and as many cars as it wants as part of the deterrent model. Any cars selected after a race are transported back by NASCAR. Teams, do however, participate with NASCAR in the teardown process.
“We don’t target one particular OEM, one particular team. We watch the races and how they unfold and if we start to see trends, then we’ll take cars back,” Sawyer said. “With this car, you can take it all the way down to basically the nuts and bolts.
“It rolls in as a complete car and it rolls out of there in a grocery basket basically. Everything is bolted on. To get a real, true understanding of what each team is doing, we take them back and take them apart.
“It’s about a 3 ½ to 4-hour process per car to strip them down. We look at everything from the front to the rear and the top to the bottom.”
Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images
Sometimes, NASCAR will discover small issues and instruct the team to address it prior to the next race, but if the issue rises to the level of a penalty, “We write them,” Sawyer said.
“We can’t let it go back to where it was five years ago. Back then, race teams had become almost manufacturing facilities. They would buy the raw material and they were building every part of the car. They would design and develop and race and repeat,” he said.
“The more research and development that you do within those walls of the race teams, that’s cost; that’s money, and not everybody can do that. It’s a fine line (on enforcement), it’s a balance that we have to strike.
“Again, we won’t and can’t get lazy with this car.”