Kevin Harvick incident puts spotlight on NASCAR's penalty structure

Kevin Harvick isn't the only one answering questions following his postrace inspection penalty. Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire

NASCAR will evaluate its penalty system following the season, a typical procedure and one that could spark additional internal debate about whether NASCAR needs to start disqualifying teams for violations and whether it must crack down on teams failing inspections multiple times prior to qualifying and the race.

"We've heard the fans kind of call out for, 'Why don't you disqualify the offending car?' and that's actually a topic of discussion along with many other things related to the deterrence model," NASCAR Senior Vice President Scott Miller said Wednesday. "Stiffer penalties at track and for failing inspection and a lot of different things on the table.

"With any of those, there's a lot of things to work through and a lot of things to consider, especially when you kind of get to the disqualification level or something like that. There's a lot of knockoff effects from that as to how the rest of the field shakes out and all that."

NASCAR also has to look at the impact on teams and sponsors if it starts taking away wins. The topic came up as Kevin Harvick won Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, but NASCAR announced Wednesday that he had an illegal, team-manufactured spoiler instead of using the spec spoiler the team is supposed to purchase from a supplier and use without modification.

Harvick kept the win, but it won't allow him to earn an automatic berth into the championship round.

He was penalized 40 points (what a driver earns for a win) but earned 60 points during the event because he swept the first two stages. NASCAR determined the penalty to be a Level 1 on its two-level scale, and the maximum points penalty in that instance is 40 (Level 1 penalties can be 10 to 40 points).

"We were right on the verge of thinking that this might fall into the L2 category," Miller said. "Instead, we went to the top end of the L1 category."

But this apparent brazen attempt to circumvent the rules could be the tipping point for NASCAR as it tries to emphasize that teams must bring legal cars to the race track. NASCAR doesn't penalize teams for a prequalifying or prerace inspection failure and penalizes the team practice time the following week for two inspection failures. The more significant penalties, such as starting at the rear, don't go into effect until a third failure.

"We realize that we kind of probably need to ramp up the severity of what goes on at the race track, and we're hoping that we can change the culture to where we don't have to play this cat-and-mouse game with the teams all the time because we have to make it a little bit more consequence for them than just saying, 'Take that [piece] off,'" Miller said. "[Saying] take that off isn't obviously working anymore."

Miller was asked if he thought "ridiculous" was an accurate word to describe how teams are approaching the inspection process.

"We're looking at the whole deterrence model and trying to review that over the winter and possibly put more teeth in it because, yeah, I think we're getting into borderline ridiculous territory," he said.

NASCAR takes the winning car, the runner-up and any other cars it determines -- either by "random" or by choice -- to its research center in North Carolina for additional inspection, a process that often takes a few hours. It figures that if a team is cheating, it eventually will get caught.

"We have small windows and tight windows to get the inspections done, and we might spend in the neighborhood of five minutes with each of the 40 cars for the three-hour window that we have for inspection," Miller said.

"To think that we can scrutinize a car as good in five minutes than we can in three hours at the R&D Center is a bit unrealistic, but we are looking at different things for next year, getting into stiffer consequences for the team for even unloading cars that we see are not legal in the first round of inspection."