It’s been one heck of a year to be a NASCAR inspector.
With fewer boots on the ground than ever before due to budget cuts and layoffs, NASCAR’s foot soldiers are being called upon to do more than ever these days, in less time. An influx of new technology has required NASCAR’s officials’ corps to learn new ways of doing things, while guiding race teams through previously uncharted technical territory.
And when things go wrong – as they frequently have – it’s the officials who take the heat when an over-aggressive crew chief gets caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
Numerous times this season, teams have been unable to make qualifying attempts after failing multiple pre-qualifying inspections. And when that happens, team members point the finger of blame in the direction of the sanctioning body, claiming that major adjustments on their machines produce little (or no) impact on the readouts.
“They’re out of calibration,” they claim. “They’re thrown off by the sun. Or the heat. Or the cold.”
NASCAR has countered those allegations, utilizing a non-adjustable test car dubbed “The Lunar Rover” to perform multiple re-calibrations of their inspection machinery, each and every week. And yet, the accusations continue.
Now, with 13 races in the record book – one half of the regular season schedule – it is possible to look back on the 2017 campaign and draw some cold, hard conclusions.
And the numbers don’t lie
A check of 2017 qualifying records shows that teams had no trouble passing pre-qualifying inspection at the circuit’s two restrictor plate races. In the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway in February, all 42 drivers successfully completed inspection in time to attempt qualifying. That trend continued at the 2.5-mile Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, with all 41 drivers attempting to qualify, without incident.
The series’ short track venues have been similarly devoid of pre-qualifying drama. Every driver made a qualifying attempt at Bristol on April 21 and Richmond on April 28, while qualifying was rained out at Martinsville Speedway on March 31, with the field set via the NASCAR rule book.
The one-mile ovals have also been trouble free this season, with all drivers successfully navigating pre-qualifying inspection at both Phoenix (March 17) and Dover last weekend.
It’s NASCAR’s intermediate tracks – the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals where aerodynamics are of critical importance -- where the issues seem to arise.
At Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 3, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Derrike Cope and Cody Ware all failed multiple inspections and were unable to complete even a single qualifying lap.
Three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding did not make qualifying attempts, after failing multiple inspections.
Texas Motor Speedway saw nine drivers -- Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chris Buescher, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope – start at the back of the pack after failing to clear pre-qualifying inspection.
Kansas Speedway provided the season’s low point, when a total of 12 drivers -- Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Jones, Earnhardt, David Ragan, McDowell, Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Hill and Carl Long – were forced to start at the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying inspections and being unable to turn a qualifying lap.
On All Star weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, all 16 drivers passed inspection in time to attempt qualifying for the Monster Energy All Star Race. However, Sorenson and McDowell both failed inspections prior to qualifying for the companion Monster Energy Open.
One week later, Larson and LaJoie failed to pass pre-qualifying inspections at Charlotte and were forced to start the Coca-Cola 600 from the rear of the field.
Interestingly, the only 1.5-mile track to experience no pre-qualifying issues was Las Vegas Motor Speedway, arguably one of the hottest venues on the schedule.
If NASCAR was truly experiencing equipment issues – with LIS tables and other measuring devices succumbing to the vagarities of heat and humidity – why have the issues occurred only at tracks where rear camber and skew offer the largest advantage? Shouldn’t there have been just as many problems at Martinsville, Daytona and Bristol, where the same measuring devices were used under the same varying weather conditions?
Common sense says `yes.’
And yet, no such issues occurred.
In the absence of such across-the-board problems, regardless of the size of the venue, it is virtually impossible to blame the yardstick for this season’s inspection debacles. NASCAR’s LIS and template stations are inanimate objects, capable of neither human bias nor error. They don’t see names and car numbers; only concrete, indisputable measurements.
Every car is the same as the others. It either complies with the rules, or it doesn’t.
Chad Knaus had it right a few weeks ago when he said teams “have nobody to blame but themselves” for this season’s rash of high-profile inspection failures.
“We are paid to push the envelope,” admitted Knaus, the most successful crew chief of this (or arguably any) era. “NASCAR gives us a rule and a tolerance beyond the rule. As competitive as we are, we take all of that, and sometimes a little more.”
So enough with blaming the yardstick. Enough pointing the finger at Mother Nature. It’s time to place the blame where it has belonged all along; with the men and women who live their lives in the gray area of the NASCAR Rule Book.