Two recent decisions by the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel and the chief officer of appeals, ex-Pontiac honcho John Middlebrook, have been stunning defeats for NASCAR, involving reversals of severe penalties toward Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing by NASCAR. The reversals have led to some speculation there is some sort of "open revolt" in NASCAR as Middlebrook has "consistently slapped NASCAR's enforcement hand when it comes to the penalties it assesses." In addition Middlebrook and NASCAR have worked seemingly at cross-purposes with each other; racecaster Dave Moody notes the fundamental difference between them - "Middlebrook is concerned primarily with fairness....NASCAR, meanwhile, is focused almost entirely on deterrence."
Writer Jim Utter wonders "How far (NASCAR) will go to maintain its control..." and it's a question worth asking. More to the point, the question is this - should NASCAR try to "maintain its control"? In other words, despite Mike Helton's insistence that NASCAR won't change, is it time for NASCAR to start letting go of some control?
In terms of what teams do or don't do to their racecars, the long-standing criticism is that NASCAR has too many rules. Of course that's always been the case, and usually when NASCAR tightens down on inspections it helps the competitive depth of the fields. There is also the crocodile tears angle - team cheating has always been ahead of the NASCAR inspectors (see Tom Jensen's book CHEATING: An Inside Look at the Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed for the best summary of the history of this technology arms race between teams and the inspectors) and with the escalation of the overall technology arms race in the sport one shouldn't give Penske or JGR the automatic benefit of the doubt here.
But would there be benefit to the sport if NASCAR let go some of its control? For his part Helton said there is need for more specificity "so (we) can show a third party why we reacted the way we reacted." But beyond specificity in the rulebook, is there need to change the rulebook to allow more freedom of movement for teams?
There are some areas where the answer is manifestly yes, notably in terms of race operations. Talladega last week showcased two chronic absurdities allowed the officiating tower - racing to the stripe when a yellow flies, and not allowing passing below the yellow line on restrictor plate tracks. One has yet to see a credible argument against NASCAR giving up on policing those areas - certainly Regan Smith in 2008 and others before and after would benefit from eliminating any yellow line rule.
In terms of the racecars themselves the issue is more complex, for there doesn't seem much benefit to the overall sport by liberalizing some of the control wielded by the sanctioning body. If anything, Middlebrook and company's reversals of NASCAR penalties may have the effect of enabling more extensive - and more flagrant - cheating by teams that now see they can get away with it without much damage.
The rock and hard place gets illustrated here, for one can see where NASCAR is right but also where John Middlebrook is right.