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NASCAR makes key changes to penalty/appeals structure; fans to soon get rule books

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When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour about all the changes the Sprint Cup Series will see this year, particularly in qualifying and the format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Junior joked that maybe NASCAR shouldn’t stop there and should change everything in the sport.

NASCAR must have been listening, as the sanctioning body on Tuesday announced even more changes – this time to rules about inspections and the appeals process for penalties that are handed out.

And after countless requests from fans over the years, it appears a true NASCAR rule book will soon be available for fans to finally get their hands on and peruse through.

NASCAR is changing what has heretofore been called its penalty structure to what will now be known as a deterrent system.

“The new deterrent system is going to provide a clear path for our competitors to fully understand the boundaries while shoring up some gray areas which may have been in existence, again, all in an effort to be as transparent as possible,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations.

“We’ve also moved to a more transparent appeals procedure with updated rules and hearings which we believe will benefit everyone involved,” O’Donnell added. “The rule book will now clearly define the appeal procedure. We believed that we’ve had one of the best processes in sports to settle disputes, but also wanted to modernize our procedures and continue to provide as much transparency, fairness and impartiality as possible.”

The most significant change announced Tuesday is the penalty structure, officially known as the “Deterrence System.” It will have six escalating tiers, from the first level, known as P1 (least significant penalties, including the most minor infractions that will likely result in things such as warnings), through P6 (most significant, involves major infractions that include hefty fines, points reductions and suspensions).

“It’s never our intent to penalize, but in order to keep the playing field fair for everyone, we recognize that strong rules need to be in place,” O’Donnell said. “We certainly believe we’ve done a good job governing the sport in the past but always believe we can get better and benefit everyone involved, especially as we went out and talked to the industry.

“NASCAR’s Deterrence System is designed to help maintain the integrity and competitive balance of our sport while sending a clear message that rules violations will not be tolerated. This is a more transparent and effective model that specifically spells out that ‘X’ infraction equals ‘X’ penalty for technical infractions.

“At the same time, we believe the Appeals process allows a fair opportunity for our NASCAR Members to be heard, and have penalty disputes resolved by an impartial, relevant group of people with the ability to handle the complexities inherent in any appeal. This system has been tailored specifically to fit the needs of our sport.”

The least restrictive penalty level, P1, will include punishment such as last choice in pit selection process, temporary suspension of annual hard card credential for team members, track time deductions in practice/qualifying and even so-called “community service.”

Although NASCAR reserves the right to do so, there will typically not be any points deductions or fines issued with a P1 violation.

The harshest penalty level, P6, will include the loss of 150 points (owner and driver), fines between $150,000 and $200,000, crew chief is suspended for six races and probation periods lasting either six months or until the end of the season, depending upon when the penalty is incurred in the course of the season.

“When you look at a P6 range, and that being the highest level, those are the ones that will be more significant, and they are the engines, engine compression ratio, additives like nitrous oxide or things that are for performance,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development.

“We believe the new system is easily understood and specifically lays out exactly what disciplinary action will be taken depending upon the type of technical infraction,” Pemberton said. “More importantly, we believe we have strengthened our system to ensure even more competitive racing.

“At the highest three levels of the system, if a rules infraction is discovered in post-race inspection, one or more additional penalty elements are added on top of the standard prescribed penalty. Repeat offenses by the same team are addressed as a recurrence multiplier. For example, if a Penalty 4 is assessed and then a second Penalty 4 or higher occurs the same season, the subsequent penalty is increased by 50 percent above the normal standard.

“The new deterrent system also includes a more detailed explanation of suspensions.  Behavioral infractions are still handled on a case-by-case basis and are not built into this particular system.”

A three-individual appeals board will remain in place but with a new name, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel. In addition, a new position of Final Appeals Officer is being added, a role that will be filled by Bryan Moss, former president of Gulfstream Aerospace. Moss will, in effect, replace NASCAR National Commissioner John Middlebrook.

Also, O’Donnell added that George Silverman will remain as appeals officer, but will not be present during deliberations on whether to sustain or overturn penalties handed out by NASCAR.

“Revamping the governance model is something we’ve looked at now over the last 18 months,” O’Donnell said, “and we felt the timing was right to put these practices in place.”

The first phase of appeal hearings will take a more pronounced look of proceedings typically seen in courts of law, followed by the penalized individual or team presenting what essentially is their defense.

“The first level will be before a three-member appeals panel that will now be called the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, and during that stage NASCAR will have the burden of showing that a penalty violation has occurred,” O’Donnell said. “And on the second and final level, only a NASCAR member is allowed to appeal, and the burden will then shift to the team in showing the final appeals officer that the panel decision was incorrect.”

One thing that will not change is even if a race-winning team is found guilty of one or more serious P6 violations, it will not have the win taken away from it – at least for the immediate future.

“You know, it’s always an age-old question, why you don’t take away the win?” Pemberton said. “The timing right now is we’re going to move forward like we have over the 65 years and we will address things on a year-to-year basis and see where it takes us.”

And while it was somewhat downplayed in Tuesday’s teleconference, Pemberton and O’Donnell both said the NASCAR rules book will soon be available for fans – although they did not give a timeline.

“I think it should be easier for them, and it’s like anything; I don’t understand all the rules of hockey even though I watch the game,” Pemberton said. “Everybody seeks a different level, and we’ve got avid fans that want to know every paragraph, every sentence, every comma and every period that they can, and then there’s others that just want a high-level look at things.

“I think once they get to see this in print and the system out here and the penalties, they’ll have a better understanding. You know, this is the first year that we’ve done this, and I’m sure as we move forward in years to come, there will be some things that we add and delete off of this.”

The new rules will apply to all three of NASCAR’s national series, Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and the Camping World Truck Series.

“The penalty system will work the same,” Pemberton said. “The only difference will be the points will be the same, and the difference is we will step the monetary values down to these penalties in accordance with the three different series, obviously the Sprint Cup being the most and then Nationwide and then the Truck Series.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

F1 Paddock Pass: McLaren MCL32 Honda Launch (VIDEO)

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The week of Formula 1 car launches continue with two more today, the Ferrari SF70H online and later, the McLaren MCL32 Honda in Woking, in the U.K.

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass continues along with it, with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales making the trip to the McLaren Technology Center (MTC) for today’s McLaren launch of the new orange-and-black liveried car.

Hopes are high that the Honda-powered McLaren will be more than just troubling the midfield this year, and instead making that next leap back into the upper crust of Formula 1, where both McLaren and Honda have so much history together.

Those tasked with that goal include American Zak Brown, the team’s new executive director, drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and a host of others including but not limited to Jonathan Neale and Eric Boullier of McLaren, and Yusuke Hasegawa of Honda.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned for more on NBCSports.com in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona. A recap of the launches held this weekend will come next week, to link up with the start of testing on February 27 at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona.

NHRA Funny Car: Cruz Pedregon ready to ‘retool, regroup and reload’ in 2017

2015 NHRA Englishtown
(Photos courtesy Toyota Racing)
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Veteran Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon is used to winning races and championships.

He’s tied with the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for fifth on the NHRA all-time Funny Car wins list with 35 triumphs.

He also is a two-time NHRA Funny Car season champion (1992, 2008).

But the driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car is not used to the kind of dismal season he had in 2016 – and he’s bound and determined to dramatically change that in 2017.

The 2016 season was the worst of Pedregon’s career. He failed to win a race for the second straight season, failed to advance past the first round of eliminations in 18 of the season’s 24 races, failed to qualify for the sport’s biggest race of the season — the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis — and missed qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

2017 NHRA Pomona Winternationals

When the season concluded, Pedregon found himself with a disappointing 12th place finish in the final standings. As far as he was concerned, he only had one place to go, and that was up in 2017.

“I needed to go through a rebuilding mode, like they do in football, baseball and basketball,” Pedregon told MotorSportsTalk. “I had to do a better job of bringing people in and figuring out what I needed to purchase as an owner.

“That’s not how I want to race, so I made the changes I felt we needed to make.”

The biggest change was the guy under the hood. As both a driver and team owner, Pedregon had tuned his own car since 2010. But during the off-season, he hired a new crew chief, Aaron Brooks, formerly of the Lucas Oil Top Fuel team that disbanded after last season.

“At the end of the day, the competition has raised the bar the last two years,” the 53-year-old Pedregon said. “Unless you’re part of a satellite team or part of a multi-car team, those things can elude you if you’re a single car team.

“So, I feel not being part of a multi-car team and not really having a crew chief or car chief that had some connection with the technology, I just felt we got behind from a technical standpoint and it caught up to us.

“We had some good years in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ‘13 was my best year (since his last championship season in 2008). We won four races and were in the championship conversation all the way up to the end (finished fourth, preceded by fourth-place finish in 2012 and third-place finish in 2011).

“Then in 2014, we dropped off a little bit (finished 10th), and 2015 (finished ninth) we declined in performance and consistency and then we hit the bottom last year. So, I had to retool, regroup and reload, and that’s what I did by hiring Aaron, who was with the Lucas Oil Top Fuel time for the last five years.

“Aaron has great attention to detail and is very crafty. He’s kind of a throwback crew chief. More modern-day crew chiefs sit behind a computer and makes calls based on data, while Aaron is more of a hands-on guy, working with the team. My team really needed that.

“I feel now we have a car that’s built properly, it’s on-par or exceeds what’s currently out there winning the races. Now what lies ahead of us is to go out and execute. We have to go out and prove that not only can we build a nice car and have a nice influx of equipment, and now we’re going to go out on the track.”

Because Brooks did not join the team until January, Pedregon had limited preseason testing. In the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, California two weeks ago, Pedregon failed to advance past the first round.

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But that’s going to change, Pedregon promises. He comes into this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix looking for bigger and better results.

“We need these runs under our belts so we can get the consistency that we need to race with these guys,” Pedregon said. “I feel like performance-wise, we’re going to be right near the top. I’d say top-five is what we’re shooting for and I don’t see why we can’t start that this weekend in Phoenix.”

By the same token, Pedregon is prepared to bide his time if additional patience and time is needed to get back into the thick of the Funny Car ranks.

“We’re going to experience some growing pains, but there’s not a guy on this team that doesn’t feel like the potential is through the roof,” Pedregon said. “Personally, I think we won the off-season free agency game in landing Aaron Brooks.

“Yeah, we lost early in Pomona, but the sky is the limit with this group. We ran a career-best in a ‘must’ qualifying run on Saturday.

“Realistically, it may take four or five races, but I don’t think much more than that. Much like a football team, the first two quarters may not show what we’ve got, but the last two quarters, we’ll really show what we have.

“I’m motivated like no other. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulder because the last couple of years. While I was optimistic, I had to really go through that to get to the point where I’m at now and say, ‘Look, I can’t do this by myself. I tried.’

“That being said, I’ve enjoyed some good years with crew chiefs. The last time I had a bonafide crew chief, who really gets in there and does what a crew chief does, was back in 2007 through 2009 with Rahn Tobler, and in those three years, we won a championship.

“Now we’ve got Aaron on board … any time I pull up to the line, I feel we have a shot to win.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Michelin gathers all GTLM cars, road going cars at Sebring (VIDEO)

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One of the elements about sports car racing that is pretty cool is that there is a huge track-to-street correlation, with manufacturers using what they learn at the track and helping to build for their street product.

Although Michelin welcomes and generally prefers competition within the GT Le Mans class, the only class open to tire competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, at the moment it works with all five manufacturers present – Chevrolet, Ford, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW.

Given the unique opportunity and the timing of this week’s IMSA test at Sebring International Raceway, Michelin organized a special track-to-street photo and video shoot to bring each of the race cars that compete in the class together with its equivalent road going variant on the same track at the same time.

The Corvette C7.R, Ford GT, Porsche 911 RSR (now mid-engined), Ferrari 488 GTE and BMW M6 GTLM are the five cars that currently compete in the GTLM class.

From a Michelin release:

“We want to create special content to show consumers the incredibly tight and authentic track-to-street links for Michelin and our technical partners, and to showcase the WeatherTech Championship and the GTLM class,” said Sarah Robinson, motorsport marketing manager, Michelin North America.

“When you see the two cars side-by-side you realize just how close the collaboration is with Michelin and our technical partners.”

Close on the heels of the successful launch experience of the MICHELIN Pilot Sport 4 S, the strong images and video captured at Sebring this week continue to tell the story of Michelin performance and safety.

See the video above and the overall main image, below. The 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring runs March 18.

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Photo courtesy Michelin North America

Graham Rahal visits the Honda Classic (PHOTOS)

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Rahal for the putt. Photo courtesy Honda Racing
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In the buildup to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12, a number of drivers are visiting other sporting events of note.

Graham Rahal has been one of the busiest. The driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made a pit stop at the Bridgestone Winter Classic in January and this week has been out to the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Anyway, 28-year-old Rahal is an avid PGA Tour follower and fan and when time allows, brushes off his own set of clubs for the event’s Honda Classic Cares Pro Am presented by Tire Kingdom. He’s also used golf as a fundraiser; he’s raised over $300,000 to benefit children’s charities (with the golf tournament he did around the Indy 500).

Rahal, who won the Pro Am twice in 2011 and 2012 and came second the next year with motorsports fan Rickie Fowler, himself one of the young stars on the PGA Tour, was only able to get in four holes this week owing to poor weather. But with a new putter that’s the same model as the one used by recent world number one player Jason Day, Rahal sank a rather impressive 40-foot putt. Rahal was playing in a group with Smylie Kaufman, and credited him for the advice.

A handful of photos from the event are below (courtesy Honda Racing):

Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.