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

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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