In the latest NASCAR penalty head-scratcher, the six Nationwide Series teams who were found to have illegally modified their front upper bumper covers at Richmond all escaped without a serious penalty on Tuesday.
NASCAR said the crew chiefs and car chiefs from the three Richard Childress Racing cars – including points leader Elliott Sadler and third-place Austin Dillon – and three Turner Motorsports cars were placed on probation until the end of the season, and the crew chiefs were each fined $10,000.
But NASCAR did not take away any points or issue any suspensions, which is surprising since its actions at Richmond seemed to indicate such penalties were coming.
"We're good with everything," Sadler told SiriusXM's NASCAR channel. "We understand NASCAR's position. ... We're looking forward to moving on to Talladega."
After opening-day inspection at Richmond, NASCAR informed the teams they would have to cut off the front noses of each car and replace them with new ones. The reason? Each of the front upper bumper covers was illegally modified.
Body modifications can help give cars an aerodynamic advantage, which is why Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team was nailed with a penalty for illegally altering its C-posts prior to the Daytona 500.
In that instance, NASCAR came down hard on Johnson's team: A 25-point penalty for the driver, six-week suspensions for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, and a $100,000 fine plus probation for Knaus.
But Johnson's team claimed the car was previously approved by NASCAR, and also said the car fit the templates when presented for multiple inspections throughout last season.
Hendrick Motorsports appealed the penalties to the highest level, where chief appellate officer John Middlebrook shockingly overturned everything but the fine and probation.
Then came last weekend's events at Richmond, where NASCAR was so dissatisfied with the bumper covers of the six Nationwide Series cars in question that it ordered the teams to immediately cut off the noses and replace them with ones that fit the rules.
The primary infraction? "Streamlining of the contours of the car, beyond what is approved by the series director," according to the rulebook.
Sadler, though, had a similar argument to Johnson's. The driver said his RCR car had been through inspection numerous times – including two post-race tear-downs after he won two races with it – and had passed every time.
In addition, Sadler said there were no issues with the templates; NASCAR officials indicated to the team that the car failed an "eye test."
By not issuing a points penalty or suspensions in this instance, perhaps NASCAR feels it does not have a strong enough case to win on appeal after what happened in the Johnson/Knaus situation. And both RCR and Turner would have certainly appealed all the way to Middlebrook after they saw how the No. 48 team had its penalties overturned.
If that's true, then it's possible NASCAR's authority has been weakened by Middlebrook's decision in the Johnson/Knaus case. After all, just look at how officials reacted to a nose problem in the past.
In 2008, Robby Gordon switched to Dodge and was sent the wrong nose by the manufacturer (something Dodge acknowledged). NASCAR, though, crushed Gordon's team with a harsh penalty – it docked him 100 points, suspended his crew chief for six weeks and fined him $100,000.
And just last fall, NASCAR slapped Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing teams with four-week crew chief/car chief suspensions, a 25-point penalty and $50,000 fine for using illegal windshields.
Today's penalty announcement was a far cry from any of those precedents.
So by issuing just a $10,000 fine and (meaningless) probation in this case, NASCAR appears to have decided on a very different approach than it has used in the past.