Massive penalties levied by NASCAR on Wednesday for all four Hendrick Motorsports cars, Kaulig’s No. 31 entry and Denny Hamlin, my take on each

NASCAR penalized each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four Cup Series teams, along with the No. 31 team of Kaulig Racing, with L2-level penalties on Wednesday for unapproved parts modifications last weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Each crew chief was fined $100,000 and suspended for four races, and each team was further penalized with the loss of 100 points and 10 playoff points.

The penalties occurred after NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers from all five cars before Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway. The Hendrick teams involved were the No. 5 Chevrolet driven by Kyle Larson, the No. 9 of Josh Berry (subbing for the injured Chase Elliott), the No. 24 of William Byron and the No. 48 of Alex Bowman; the No. 31 of Justin Haley was the Kaulig team involved. The respective crew chiefs fined and receiving suspensions were Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle and Blake Harris for Hendrick and Trent Owens for Kaulig.

The NASCAR Rule Book section specifically referenced for the penalties was Sections, which deals with how the radiator duct is assembled. The teams were found with unapproved modification of a single-source vendor-supplied part.

The hood louvers — which you can see on this Next Gen 3D model — are openings or vents in the hood that serve as a release point for ducts that transfer air out of the radiator. The system is intended to decouple engine performance from aero performance, offsetting the practice of teams taping off air intakes and placing undue pressure and heat strain on the car’s engine.

NASCAR permitted the Hendrick teams to use the hood louvers for a 50-minute Cup Series practice session on Friday at Phoenix, but then took the louvers back to the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, for further examination. Hendrick replaced the louvers, and all four cars passed technical inspection before Sunday’s race at Phoenix.

These were massive penalties that honestly had to occur.

Look no further as to what was done to Brad Keselowski’s team just last year. They received a 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 necessarily 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. NASCAR was skeptical on if it would or not and can’t say a definitive answer one way or the other if the altered louvers did.

HMS went 1-3 in practice after the louvers were confiscated. A day later, they again went 1-3 in qualifying and then 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.”

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)

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.

Hendrick’s William Byron went on to win the race, his second victory in a row and the sixth Cup triumph in his career. All the other Hendrick cars also finished in the top 10, with Larson coming in fourth, Bowman in ninth and Berry in 10th.

In saying that, this is a massive blow to HMS’ championship chances. A 100 point penalty is huge. So is the loss of 10 playoff points. 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 impossible for all four HMS cars to points their ways into the playoffs now. They’d essentially have to win again.

Before the penalties, Bowman was atop the Cup Series standings with 154 points and had top-10 finishes in all four races this season. Byron was fourth in the standings, and Larson was fifth, while Berry continued to fill in for the injured Elliott, who underwent surgery on March 3 for a broken left leg and is expected to miss six weeks.

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

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 already taken away. That’s the equivalent to both of Byron’s last two race wins.

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

If you take a step back and look at it’s going to be very hard to finish in the top 10 in points for the regular season which shuts them out of the bonus points there, then factor in already 10 playoff points in the hole as well and you get HMS drivers likely all being outside the top 10 in the standings coming into the opening round. Then, if they make it by to the next round and so forth, they’re more than likely always going to start each round below the cutline already.

The other byproduct here is the fact that they’re losing all four crew chiefs for 4 weeks. They chose not to appeal that. It’s a decision that was best for them not to because why risk the appeal taking a week or two and for the 9 cars sake, you at least can Gustafson out while Elliott is out and not having Elliott coming back with Gustafson still on the sidelines serving his suspension.

Plus, the four upcoming tracks are less dangerous to miss than the ones after. Atlanta is less about strategy and handling, COTA is a road course, Richmond will be a big miss but Bristol Dirt won’t. If you appeal this, you could get getting into the Martinsville, Talladega, Dover, Kansas and Darlington mix. 4 of those 5 are playoff tracks for which you need your crew chief on site at these spring races to help with strategy calls as well as data for the return trip.

“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.”

With all four crew chiefs are out, that could be a massive loss at the track too in regards to communication but not too bad with the four tracks that they’re out for.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 30: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Direct Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

My Take On Hamlin’s Penalty

In other penalties announced Wednesday morning, Denny Hamlin was fined $50,000 and lost 25 driver points for violating Sections 4.4 in the NASCAR Member Code of Conduct, which cover – attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race or championship; wrecking or spinning another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result; and actions detrimental to stock car racing or NASCAR. We knew this could potentially be coming 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. They did indeed take action.

“It wasn’t a mistake. No, it wasn’t a mistake,” Hamlin said on his Podcast this week. “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.”

Should this admission get him penalized? It certainly did. But, I don’t necessarily agree with it though. NASCAR’s stance is that they initially viewed the on track spat on Sunday as a “racing” deal and nothing necessarily egregious. However, once they got wind of Hamlin’s comments on his podcast, they felt like they had to take action for a couple of reasons.

The first being manipulating a result of a race by purposely taking someone out. The next being the fact that they knew this situation has been going on for too long now and felt like it needed some intervention. The final thought process was that this sends a wrong message to the younger drivers coming through the ranks with a driver saying a lot over the last year that he was going to take another driver out and he finally did. He feels like it’s not the standards that NASCAR needs to set forth.

In saying that, I am genuinely curious on how you fine and give a driver a points penalty for something that 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? This is what we want.

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?

I mean, you’re essentially making a statement on a driver for getting payback. If he made it look less egregious and didn’t speak about it, then he’d not have been penalized or fined. That’s why I don’t think this penalty one bit.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: Justin Haley, driver of the #31 Celsius Chevrolet, (L) and Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Get Bioethanol Chevrolet, talk during qualifying for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum at Los Angeles Coliseum on February 04, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Haley Penalty Takeaway

This is a costly one for them too. This team doesn’t have the resources like HMS has to overcome a penalty of this magnitude. I mean it takes Haley’s point total from 60 to -40. This forces him to have to win a race for sure and that’s a lot to ask for a driver with one career Cup win driving for a team also with one career Cup win.

Louvers Takeaway

This infraction makes me wonder how many teams are doing this. NASCAR admitted this to be a random process which makes me wonder if they got tipped off and how many teams are doing this in general?

HMS and Kaulig have no ties together other than being Chevy teams. I don’t think it’s a fluke both we’re caught with the same violation which means there’s chatter in the garage to warrant more than these teams may be doing it. They’ve just not been caught yet and this penalty serves a message for them to fix their louvers too.

– The No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Aric Almirola also got hit with a safety violation for the loss or separation of an improperly installed tire/wheel from the vehicle (Sections A&C). Crew members Ryan Mulder and Sean Cotten were suspended for two races.

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