Name one time in recent memory where NASCAR got it right when it came to penalizing a driver? Not speaking of things that are outside the control of the one at the wheel, like a lug nut or inspection failures, but for something the driver actually did on or off track.
Go ahead, think about it. Take some time, it may take a while.
When it comes to actions of the drivers for things they did, there has always been inconsistency with penalties, especially when it comes to retaliation. Back about 20 years ago, seeing someone retaliate on the track was something that the sport didn’t bat an eye at, especially at the shorter speedways. Has it happened, sure. Dale Earnhardt got penalized at Bristol in 1995 for aggressive driving when he took out Rusty Wallace, then proceeded to drive alongside him giving him a piece of his mind under caution. What did NASCAR do…put him at the back of the line.
Ultimately, he drove to the front, including wrecking Lake Speed along the way, and almost made it to the front had he timed the final bump of Terry Labonte a little earlier. In the end, he finished second, and Labonte’s car looked like the aftermath of a wreck on the interstate.
Two years later, Wallace was on the receiving end of a bump by Jeff Gordon, but he didn’t get wrecked, and instead got moved out of the way for the victory.
No penalty, just hard racing.
When NASCAR really began penalizing drivers for their actions, the mentality of “eye for an eye” or “Boys, have at it” decided to go away, and the sanctioning body got involved.
That is when NASCAR’s inconsistency became clear. That is the case today with Johnny Sauter, because his penalty for his actions on Sunday afternoon are a true oxymoron for the sport. Why exactly, he gets a reprieve by the sport, and could still win a championship at season’s end.
Let’s go back and look at some similar incidents in recent memory, and the penalties that followed to see if there’s a pattern.
- Kevin Harvick, 2002: Competing in a then-Craftsman Truck event, he purposely wrecks another driver, and admits in doing so over the radio. PENALTY: Parked for the race, and also suspended for the next day’s Cup race. He was allowed to return the following week, no other penalties followed.
- Kyle Busch, 2011: Ron Hornaday and Busch get together in the early laps of the Truck race on Friday night, and Busch gets the worst end of it by sliding up into the wall. Caution comes out, but he goes right after Hornaday and rides him into the third turn, despite a clear direction from his own spotter of “Calm down! CALM DOWN!” Too late, he hooks Hornaday, a championship contender, into the wall. PENALTY: Parked for the remainder of the Truck race, and also forced to withdraw from the rest of the weekend’s activities. Busch also loses support from Mars Candies for the final two races of the season.
- Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer, 2012: Bowyer causes Gordon to spin at Phoenix late in the going, and knowing he’s out of contention, Gordon stays out and limps around long enough to take out Bowyer, and as a result also took out Joey Logano (who at this time was still with Joe Gibbs Racing). The two teams got into a scuffle in the garage, Bowyer runs, literally, to Gordon’s hauler and is held back. PENALTIES: Bowyer and Gordon both get probation for the remainder of the year, and fined.
- Matt Kenseth, 2015: The most recent, and maybe most infamous, incident in the modern era. Logano spins Kenseth at Kansas for the win, and essentially takes him out of the playoffs. Two weeks later, at Martinsville, Kenseth is turned again by Logano, who was still a title contender at that point. Late in the race, laps down, Kenseth takes out Logano, who was leading at the time, and gives the opening for Jeff Gordon to win what ultimately was his final race. PENALTY: Kenseth is suspended two races.
The only thing that is similar between all these incidents, along with what Sauter did to Austin Hill, is that these were all retaliation wrecks. But, the similarities stop pretty much at that point. Busch’s wreck of Hornaday was under caution, just like Sauter. Every other incident, under racing conditions.
So, what does NASCAR do now…exactly what they have always done, something not consistent with the past. Sauter’s penalty: one-race suspension. However, NASCAR decided to not be too harsh and decided to not take away points, playoff points, or eligibility for a title.
Sauter got a reprieve, and it’s not fair. He’s already got wins, so NASCAR decides he still can win a title despite being forced to sit out? Only place that a quarterback, which is in essence who the driver is, can sit out a week or more, whether due to injury, coach decision, or personal conduct seems to be the NFL. Tom Brady proved that a few years ago when he had to sit out four weeks for “Deflate-Gate” and his team still went on to win the Super Bowl.
But with Sauter sitting out a week, he doesn’t earn points, only the team. Brady’s team as a unit still won games without him, and it counted towards the ultimate goal.
NASCAR once again, dropped the ball. They had a chance to say that no matter who the driver is, how many races they have won, or if they are competing for a championship, they were in control. Instead, they took an approach as though they punish a kid, but they can still get their candy in the end. This doesn’t work in NASCAR, and again, they failed as the leader, or parent, to set an example.
How can the competition trust the ones who are leading them, when they can’t even punish properly?
This is one of the reasons why fans no longer tune in, why attendance is down, and why the overall popularity of the sport is on a downward trend. There’s never been consistency over the last several years when it came to actions involving the drivers, whether on track, under caution, or post-race.
Unless they start getting their act together, that trend will continue.