NASCAR ISN'T USED to losing. Going back to its earliest days under founder and first president Bill France Sr., the sanctioning body's governance has remained largely unchallenged; its win-loss record is nearly perfect. "I learned right off the bat that NASCAR doesn't just run this swimming pool," explains Richard Petty, whose family has fielded cars since the very first Cup Series race in 1949. "They also built the pool. They own the water, the pipes that brought that water in, and they wrote all the rules on that big sign by the front gate, the one that says 'No horseplay.' "
Yet over a 24-hour span on May 7 and 8, NASCAR's authority suffered a pair of stunning setbacks. In April officials hit Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing with crew chief suspensions and massive monetary and points penalties for separate technical rules violations. Both teams filed appeals through the independently run National Stock Car Racing Commission, and both had their penalties significantly reduced. In fact, the current chief appellate officer, former GM exec John Middlebrook, has reduced penalties in five of the six cases (83 percent) he's heard since 2010 -- a stark contrast to the 21 percent overall reduction rate since 1999.
Some racers are pointing to the trend as evidence that they need clarity regarding certain tech specs and a list of specific per-violation penalties instead of what's perceived by many as arbitrary punishments. "There's some benefit to the way it's been done -- NASCAR's strong leadership can't really be argued with," says JGR driver Matt Kenseth, who had his Kansas win on April 21 reinstated after an appeal. "But when you feel like something unreasonable happens, such as being penalized like we were for a part that was 3 grams too light that provided no advantage, then maybe it's time to look at the process."
Still, others are already warning that there is comfort (and speed) to be found within the informality. "As long as they've been racing cars, the job of a crew chief has been to find the gray areas of the rulebook and exploit those to his team's advantage," says ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, who won three Cup titles calling the shots for Jeff Gordon in the 1990s. "Over the years, those gray areas have shrunk more and more. So I'd go easy about asking for more specific rules."
Indeed, in 2001 the Cup Series rulebook was 76 pages long; in 2012 it was up to 172. "More clarity and specifics would be great," vet Jeff Burton says. "But we also have to know when to stop pushing. If you give city hall an excuse to create more rules, then you'd better not complain when you start getting tickets."