Next Gen car, Next Gen punishment.
Sunday night, so soon after the 21st race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season arrived that confetti was still stuck to the hallowed concrete floor of Pocono Raceway’s Victory Lane, the racer who had just celebrated in that space was informed that his victory had been taken away.
Denny Hamlin is no longer the winner of the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. He is no longer the second three-time winner of the season, he is no longer Pocono Raceway’s only all-time champion with seven wins and is no longer tied with Tony Stewart for 15th on the all-time win list at 49. Instead, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer now has a page in the stock car racing history book that no driver ever wants to write.
His win was disqualified. Cleared. Deleted. This isn’t just the first time a racer at NASCAR’s top tier has won via post-race tech inspection during the sport’s so-called modern era that began in 1972. It’s the first time that it’s been happening since 1960. like we better get used to it. Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to admit it on Monday afternoon as he let the appeal deadline come and go without a fight.
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NASCAR has always threatened to do so. He promised that one day it would happen. From 2019, in the face of criticism that it never did enough to punish those who used an illegal advantage to win a race – points and fines, but the win still stood – the sanctioning body moved on. is committed to doing more, and he did, but at the lower levels, never in the Cup. So far.
Why now? Because we now have the all-new Next Gen car, the car that NASCAR has gone all out on as the chariot that will lead the sport into a brighter future. A unique parity creator that is basically delivered to teams in a box, purchased only from approved vendors. These 2022 Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas are the result of years of research, tens of millions of dollars of investment and unprecedented cooperation between these three warring corporate car giants.
This car delivered a ridiculously competitive season, with 14 winners in 21 weeks, spread across so many drivers and teams that there were five first-time winners and there’s a very real chance that a winner of the race could be excluded from the 16-team playoffs this fall.
All of the above is why NASCAR has told teams not to mess with the next generation. NASCAR warned there would be dire consequences if they did. But NASCAR had also said that before. A lot. Yet in nearly 75 seasons of NASCAR Strictly Stock/Grand National/Cup Series racing, even those of us who fancy ourselves stock car racing historians have been sent off in search of disqualifications from the days of past races.
At the first-ever Strictly Stock race, held in Charlotte on June 19, 1949, Glenn Dunnaway was named the winner, but that victory was overturned when post-race inspection revealed his Ford was designed with “contraband springs”. reinforced, and the victory was awarded to Jim Roper (read more about it here). Then there was that April 17, 1960 mess in Wilson, North Carolina, when Emanuel “Golden Greek” Zervakis was disqualified for using an oversized fuel tank, giving NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly the win.
That’s it. That’s pretty much the whole list.
None of the most notoriously cheated race cars were subsequently disqualified. Not the Smokey Yunick race winners of the 1960s that had fuel hidden everywhere, including the roll bars. Not the Darrell Waltrip rides that held pounds of ball bearings in those same roll bars, unloaded from the car to lighten it via a pulled lever as DW shouted “Bombs away!” from the cockpit. Not even Richard Petty’s infamous 198th career win, which came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1983 by two major violations: running the wrong tires on the wrong side to gain grip and running an oversized engine that was almost 24 cubic inches. The King held on to the win but was fined over 100 points and a then-record $35,000 fine.
Fines increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s. NASCAR even taught us the term “encumbered” because it refused to pick up wins but pointed out fines and penalties and said those wins were “wins cluttered”. It was the racing equivalent of “A Christmas Story”, when Ralphie and his friends get the “I’m sure the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive” treatment from their teacher.
No one felt guilty because no one lost their trophies. Nobody. Until Hamlin on Sunday.
Hamlin was taken off the top of the score because his No. 11 Toyota Camry had some sort of illegal material hidden in the nose of the car, a foreign object or substance deemed prohibited by NASCAR rules, presumably placed there because it would help driving the car around the quirky triangle turns of Pocono. It looks like nothing compared to those old-school cheats of the past, but these runners weren’t working in the thousandths of an inch realm. Today’s competitors do. It wasn’t caught in the pre-race inspection because it was hidden under the car’s vinyl wrap (spoiler alert: they don’t paint race cars anymore, they wrap them) and that doesn’t is not removed before the event, but is removed after.
“There really was no reason for there to be any material that was somewhere it shouldn’t have been and it basically comes down to a DQ,” said NASCAR Cup Series manager Brad Moran at the Pocono Raceway media center hours after the event was over and Hamlin had long since returned to North Carolina with the trophy. “I can’t go into all the details of the issues, but both vehicles had the same issue. And unfortunately they weren’t acceptable to pass inspection.”
“Both vehicles,” as in Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who finished second. The win instead went to third-placed Chase Elliott, his fourth victory of 2022 and arguably the most bizarre of his career.
So weird that when chatting with the NASCAR media on Monday morning, Elliott didn’t quite know what to say. He admitted he didn’t know how he should feel other than the fact that he didn’t feel like celebrating.
“I don’t think any driver wants to win this way. I certainly don’t want to,” confessed the championship points leader. “I’m not going to celebrate someone’s misfortune. It doesn’t feel fair to me. I crossed the line in third. That’s kind of how I see it.”
When asked how he planned to collect the trophy from Hamlin, he replied that he would not. “If he wants to keep it, he can keep it.”
That’s a good thing, because on Sunday night Hamlin retweeted a photo of her daughter waving the checkered flag, just like she did on her lap of honor, driving a shotgun in the race car then victorious over her dad, and added, “Yeah, good luck on that comeback.”
Yes, good luck getting that back. https://t.co/f1X8vISlzS
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) July 25, 2022
Still, the record books say Elliott won and Hamlin finished 35th. When paychecks are sent to teams, they will also reflect this outcome. Heck, even at the Dawsonville Pool Hall they officially recognized their favorite son as the winner, sounding the siren on Sunday night as they tweeted: “Winner, winner, Joe Gibbs Racing are cheaters!”
It’s all super weird, right? Weird only because we didn’t see it coming. We didn’t expect that. Joe Gibbs Racing certainly did not expect this. Why would we? Why would they? Unless you were one of the 5,000 people at Wilson Speedway in the spring of 1960 watching Zervakis get motor-shamed, none of us had ever seen him before.
Well, we’ve done it now, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time. In fact, we know it won’t, as riders will always work overtime to find advantages in the gray areas of the regulations. They should. It is their job and they have always taken this task very seriously.
But it’s also NASCAR’s job to catch them and punish them if they do. Now, finally, NASCAR also seems to be taking this mission very seriously.