3 things to watch between Phoenix and Atlanta


This could be a week full of controversial penalties. Hendrick Motorsports saw each of their four cars get their louvers confiscated this past weekend in Phoenix.

It sent shockwaves through the garage. Was HMS doing something illegal? It was certainly on their minds heading into Sunday’s fourth race of the 2023 season at the Phoenix Raceway. I mean, how could it not.

NASCAR won’t announce penalties until Tuesday or Wednesday, but if they find HMS violated the rules, it could merit an L2 penalty which would be:

  • A loss of 75 points for the driver and/or team owner
  • A loss of 10 playoff points for the driver and/or team owner
  • A four-race race suspension for particular crewmember(s)
  • A $100,000 fine

It could even be more severe with a potential L3 penalty for modifying a Next Gen single-sourced supplied part. This penalty is even worse.

  • A loss of 120 points for the driver and/or team owner
  • A loss of 25 playoff points for the driver and/or team owner
  • A six-race race suspension for particular crewmember(s)
  • A $250,00 fine

After the start to the season that HMS is having, one could think that the louvers are the cause of this. They swept the front row for the Daytona 500. Chase Elliott finished runner-up a week later in Fontana. They went 1-2-3 not only in both stages in Vegas, but 1-2-3 in the race too. They now just went 1-2 in both stages in Phoenix and 1-4 in the end.

Was this a byproduct of illegal louvers? It had their attention going into Sunday.

“I can tell you it was weighing on all of our minds coming into today,” Jeff Gordon admitted on Sunday evening. “Certainly will continue.”

Gordon says that they’ve talked to NASCAR and will continue to do so moving forward too. He says this whole situation could have been a misunderstanding.

“Every situation is sort of unique, but this is a more unique one than I’ve seen in a while where there’s been a lot of communication back and forth on this particular part, especially for this racetrack because they did a parity test in the wind tunnel,” he continued.

“I think it really opened up the door for some miscommunication. I don’t want to go any further than that. We’ll continue to just share all the facts and be transparent with NASCAR as we have been so far.”

That may not be the only penalty coming down from Charlotte this week. I’m curious to see what NASCAR does to Denny Hamlin too. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver admitted on his podcast, “Actions Detrimental” that he purposely ruined the ending of not only his race, but Ross Chastain’s race in Phoenix as well.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, was on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday morning and said without a doubt that it’s on their radar regarding Hamlin’s comments.

According to NASCAR rule Section 4.4.B, it says that a competitor can be fined 25-50 points and/or fined $50,000-$100,000 for a series of violations that includes “Wrecking or spinning another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from Competition as a result.”

Well, Hamlin pretty much admitted to doing as such.

“It wasn’t a mistake. No, it wasn’t a mistake,” he said. “I let the wheel go, and I said he’s coming with me. It’s been interesting because I hear people say this is for last year or this year. I got wrecked at the Clash. I don’t know that Ross sees it that way. I think he’s still curious about what I thought about the Clash. I don’t know why he wonders what I thought about the Clash.

“I said for awhile you’ve got to do something to get these guys’ attention, whatever. I’ve said it. I think that Ross doesn’t like it when I speak his name in the media and when I have this microphone. I told him I have a microphone and I’m going to call it like I see it. Until you get a microphone, you can then say whatever you want about me. The fact is while I’m sitting here talking, I’m going to call things the way I see it.

“Sometimes I’m going to have to call myself out. I’m the (expletive) that lost as many spots as he did. At the time I said I’m going to finish (expletive) anyway, I’m just going to make sure he finishes (expletive) right with me.

“It’s difficult because at times people want me to react right away. I don’t want to involve any more cars. I told you guys privately, my friends, it’s difficult to be in a position where you get back at a person and not involve an innocent bystander. It’s really hard to do. Then you’ve got other people pissed at you because you’re doing something that affected their race when they had nothing to do with it. I never wanted to do that. Pocono, unfortunately, someone got caught up in that when Ross bounced back off the wall.

“Here, I saw that we were the only people up top, so I said I’m going to send him into the fence and door him. My dumb (expletive) got caught up in it because when I got pinned, he was between me and the wall, so I got all screwed up and I lost a bunch of positions for my team, which was stupid. At the time, I’m like I’m going to finish in the mid-teens anyway because my car is just plowing here, I’m about to get ate up by all these new tires. I just was like if I’m going to give this guy a hard time, it’s just going to be then.

“So he bounced off the wall. My ideal situation was I was just going to knock him in the fence a little bit and keep going.”

Does this admission get him penalized too?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 12: William Byron, driver of the #24 Valvoline Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 12, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Results Of Said Penalties

I’m also curious on what stance NASCAR takes with these penalties. In HMS’ case, I’ve heard a couple of different reasons as to why they were confiscated. One of which was HMS did alter the part, but they had to do so because the stock louver wasn’t fitting into the spot into the car itself. If that’s true, then I can see where NASCAR may be a little more lenient. However, they also showed that in the past though, that you have to be transparent with them and you can’t go rogue by adjusting a stock item either.

Look no further to what Brad Keselowski did last year. 100 point penalty and a loss of 10 playoff points that was levied against his No. 6 Ford team after this very Atlanta race last March. His crew chief, Matt McCall was also fined $100k and suspended for four weeks too. While most thought that they weren’t necessarily in the wrong from what they did, NASCAR took action to make a stance that you can’t touch these stock parts.

However, their modification to the parts in question, didn’t help their on track performance for them though either. Same way the louvers showed that HMS didn’t gain any speed because of their doing to them.

They went 1-3 in practice after the louvers were confiscated, 1-3 in qualifying and 1-4 in the race for which they led 265 of 317 laps in.

“I think that really solidified some of the hype and things that were being focused on on Friday,” Gordon said. “These guys have speed in the car. There was nothing, not last week, not this week, that was getting them to Victory Lane other than a lot of hard work and great teamwork.”

William Byron’s crew chief, Rudy Fugle, said it was all about a test of mental strength to get through this noise this weekend.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s a test of mental strength. That’s just what it takes to be really good in this series. We have to think about what the task is. We have to focus on this weekend. That’s what we all did.”

The thing is, the precedence has already been established. Front Row Motorsports also received a similar penalty after the Pocono race last July. Joe Gibbs Racing got a couple of DQ’s for what Denny Hamlin described was for being wraps on the front end and not altering a part of the car. He says HMS altered the part and should be penalized for doing so.

Even if HMS did so without any ill intentions though, you also have to live by the book that you set and fine each team $100k and suspend all four crew chiefs for the next four races. If you don’t, the drawback would be severe from this fan base and the garage with them thinking that NASCAR is showing favoritism towards HMS.

The thing is, should HMS be penalized for the way that they could be? A 75-120 point loss of points is massive. It would essentially force all four drivers to have to win a race again in order to advance to the postseason. We saw 15 different winners in last year’s regular season which left a driver in the top 5 of the overall points on the outside looking in. A points penalty of this magnitude would make it all but impossibel for all four HMS cars to points their ways into the playoffs. They’d essentially have to win again.

But, it’s the 10-25 point playoff point loss that would be massive too which could pose problems in the long run.

We’ve seen advancing out of a round in the playoffs come down to the smallest of margins. When you get that many playoff points taken away, this could put HMS in a massive hole for which they would realistically have to go on a terror this postseason in order to make the Championship 4.

See, you take your playoff points with you each round. In HMS’ sake, they’d be coming from behind each round and arguably being forced to win.

Think about it, at the very minimum, all four drivers get 10 playoff points taken away. That’s the equivalent to both of Byron’s last two race wins. If it’s a 25 point penalty, that’s basically saying that they’re taking away 5 wins from each driver.

Byron has 13 playoff points now. Larson has 1. Elliott and Bowman have 0. If each gets 10 playoff points taken away, Byron goes to 3, Larson -9 and Elliott and Bowman -10. It would take 10 stage wins or 2 race wins to get Elliott and Bowman back to 0. That’s how massive of a penalty this would be.

Which is why I wonder how much NASCAR rules here.

The other byproduct is losing four crew chiefs for 4-6 weeks. I have a feeling that they’d appeal which means Atlanta they’d be there, but the races after are COTA, Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover. They could miss any or all of those races.

“We work together really well,” Rudy Fugle said of the four crew chiefs communicating during the race. “Cliff (Daniels, Kyle Larson’s crew chief) and I were chatting about what strategy we were going to do. Open in the chat multiple times if we were going to take four or two, how we were going to do it. Even racing against each other, fully working together. We work together great, all four crew chiefs, all four teams.

“But, yeah, we prepare the cars. We look at each other’s cars all week long, make adjustments. Each driver is a little bit different. So last 15, 20% is different.”

Fugle also noted that if one car is struggling within the camp but another is doing well, they’ll internally work on helping each other out to bring the other one back up to par.

“Definitely,” Fugle continued. “We made a lot of changes their direction (Larson’s car) after Friday practice. Saturday morning came in and changed geometry and other things, too, to chase the 5, because they were a little bit better than us, yes.”

If all four crew chiefs are out, that could be a massive loss at the track too in regards to communication.

In the case of Hamlin, I’m curious also how you fine and give someone a points penalty for something they admitted well after the fact. Granted, his podcasts’ title is a perfect name for this type of circumstance, but do you really want to start penalizing drivers for being honest and forthcoming in a podcast?

NASCAR went vanilla for several years and it hurt the sport greatly. By having a driver not afraid to speak his mind and not afraid to start a conflict, you kind of what that, right? It’s better for the sport. But, if they penalize Hamlin for this, then doesn’t it kind of muzzle him in the future?

However, there’s also a precedence in this case too that the rule is already established. I’m just curious to see how NASCAR polices these two incidents and how the fan base/garage reacts to it.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)


I’m watching two zones of the track this weekend to see how much of an impact that they will have on the future rule book. The first zone is the restart one. This season, NASCAR expanded the zone 50% at each track. They’re 25% longer on each end of it.

We saw in Fontana on how much this was a factor.

Per the rulebook, the leader of the race must get on the throttle inside of the zone. No one else can do so until the leader first does. If however, the leader doesn’t push the gas before the end of the restart zone, then everyone can then go.

For Fontana, most blamed Joey Logano (the leader at the time) for playing games. Kyle Busch was the most vocal about it saying that all the restart zone did was crash a lot of cars in California. He notes that expanding the zone is only negative and outweighs any possible positive to it.

The common consensus is the fact that everyone agrees that games are being played on the restarts. Extending the zone only creates more room for more games.

I get the notion that the leader should have the advantage, but those behind try to time it for when the leader goes. They lag back and try to time it out by if they’re far enough behind the row in front, they can get in the gas earlier and have a better run on everyone in front of them. If the leader, as in Logano’s case in Fontana, waits to go until deeper in the zone, it can create bottlenecks behind of drivers trying to go then having to slam the brakes again if they mistime it. Those behind them may think the leader went and storms off too when in reality, the leader didn’t do anything differently.

So, if you shorten the zone back up, you have less time for those games. But, you’re also taking away an advantage of the leader too.

NASCAR is expected to make a decision after the Cup race next week at Atlanta on whether to continue using the expanded zone. There are mixed feelings about it.

“Logano was just maintaining his speed and everyone was gaining, gaining, gaining, gaining and closing up their gaps because they were all trying to lay back and then time the run. So he just waited for everybody to run into everybody and then went at the end of the zone,” Busch said.

NASCAR has rules in place to penalize drivers for lagging behind to get a good run, but can they police it enough in a longer restart zone?

NASCAR is looking closely at this on Sunday and will make a decision after this weekend’s race on whether to shorten the zone back up again or to keep it.

Another zone to watch is the pit entry point. NASCAR has moved the pit road commitment line to Turn 3 this week. That came at the recommendation of the drivers who were concerned about diving to pit road at Turn 4 exit could potentially be dangerous.

At least at the other two drafting tracks in Talladega and Daytona, you have plenty of room between Turn 4 and the tri-oval to get slowed down and to pit road. You don’t have that luxury in Atlanta.

However, it was a moot point last season with no green flag pit stops occurring in either Atlanta race. Does it become a focal point this year?

There’s also no practice this weekend to try it out, so they’re going to be learning this on the fly. How many drivers will forget to hit the commitment line in Turn 3 and miss pit road all together?

This is something to watch as well.

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