Drawn-out inspection is no-win situation for NASCAR

After winning at Las Vegas, Kevin Harvick's No. 4 car became the subject of intense scrutiny. Matt Bolt/Icon Sportswire)

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- NASCAR hammered Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick when it stripped him of seven playoff points for determining his car violated specifications after he swept the stages and won the race at Las Vegas.

In doing so, NASCAR appeared tough, unforgiving and non-discriminatory in enforcing its rules.

That should attract kudos all across the NASCAR world.

But it doesn't.

The Harvick situation is just the latest example where there's a split view of an attempt by NASCAR to do the right thing. It loses fans either way, and the process is largely to blame. As long as NASCAR is determined to do a two-tiered, drawn-out, postrace inspection of the top two cars after each Cup race, there appears to be no solution to these issues.

NASCAR ruled that Harvick's rear window and roof weren't rigid and that he had a metal, instead of aluminum, extension of the side skirt (about a 6-inch piece on the lower part of the side skirt). Both are violations of NASCAR rules.

During the race Sunday, NASCAR called inspectors to take a closer look at the Harvick car during a pit stop to determine if it was violating any rear window rules. It never black-flagged him. The car passed the postrace body scan, NASCAR's new template inspection bay. Those side skirt extensions passed initial prerace inspection and postrace inspection.

The car then failed when it was dissected Wednesday at the NASCAR R&D center. So three days after the race Harvick celebrated, NASCAR issued a penalty.

Thanks to photos of his caved-in rear windshield and social media buzz, the talk all week centered on Harvick and whether the team intentionally cheated (or unintentionally cheated) its way to the win.

Photos of cars with suspect rear windows from last week and last year flew around social media and were texted within the industry. For those immersed in it, it was an overwhelming and ridiculous exercise of "see where this car cheated!" or "Harvick wasn't the only one!" or "What will NASCAR do now?"

Come Wednesday, NASCAR had a choice on how to enforce its rules. It could have said it was race damage or there were no illegal parts beyond the side skirt -- that all in all, the violations didn't rise to the level of a penalty for which a driver loses playoff points.

If NASCAR did that, it would have looked like it was playing favorites and ignoring what everyone could see on social media.

Instead, NASCAR issued the penalties within the guidelines the rulebook designates. It got applauded for abiding by its rules by many who wanted it to draw a line in the sand.

So where did NASCAR go wrong? In several areas:

• It waited until Wednesday to make the determination. Everyone knew the car was going to be scrutinized for the rear window. That should have been done at the track Sunday and announced. By waiting until Wednesday, NASCAR gave credence to Harvick's allegation that it responded to social media chatter.

• It doesn't explain its reasoning for the violation. That's protocol because of a possible appeal. By not giving out information, though, it fuels presumptions about why it issued the penalty.

• NASCAR suspended the car chief. Whether this is a bigger impact could be argued, but the perception is the penalty isn't as big as it would be if the crew chief were suspended.

• NASCAR gives the message that it doesn't care if the team violated rules on purpose. Is that the easy way out? It certainly keeps NASCAR from being scrutinized as far as consistency. But it raises the issue whether a professional governing body should have a good idea on intent and aerodynamic value. Isn't that why the rules are there?

Some would say that NASCAR has enough judgment calls to make throughout the race weekend and the inspection bay isn't the place for them. Harvick, though, said if NASCAR really wants to find something illegal in a car, it could do that anytime a car goes through teardown at the R&D center.

"The officials in the garage do a great job," Harvick said. "It just feels like it is a micromanaged situation from above what these guys do in the garage to appease people sitting on social media and trying to officiate a sporting event instead of letting these guys in the garage do what they do and do a great job with it week in and week out. That is the frustrating part."

It is hard to blame Harvick and yet so easy to tell him to suck it up and take his medicine.

The hard part is knowing where NASCAR goes from here. What will it do the next time there is a significant social media buzz over potential rule violations? Is every week going to turn into people posting photos from television on Twitter to see if NASCAR will penalize a team?

Does it keep sending home car chiefs, or will it reverse course again and decide whether crew chiefs are more responsible and should be the ones staying home?

No one should act surprised Harvick used the term "confused" several times in his media session Friday. This is a confusing sport to understand. How do we know?

Social media tells us so.