More Questions than Answers in NASCAR drug policy, penalties
NASCAR's handling of drug issues leave more questions than answers.
By: Matt Taliaferro | 7/12/12, 5:38 PM EDT
Photo by ASP, Inc.
We live in an instant gratification society. Fair or not, Facebook and Twitter breaks the news of the world long before Brian Williams clears his throat and gets ready to report it on NBC. Groupon provides us with deal-a-day discounts, making cheap choices so we don’t have to search for them. Direct Deposit removes the need to go to the bank; YouTube keeps you at home instead of the movies. Technological advances are made with the concept that 21st-Century humans have run out of patience.
In some ways, NASCAR brass has finally caught onto the concept. The conversation about shorter races, while I’m in objection to it, has some merit; fans no longer want to sit on their couch for four hours when 1,000 entertainment distractions reside all around their doorstep – sometimes right inside the house. The sport’s evolution with social media, despite the controversy over the #NASCAR/Twitter partnership, gives its base instant access the likes of which its stick ‘n’ ball brethren would kill for. Despite an unrelenting mountain of criticism these days, there’s actually only two pieces of the publicity puzzle where NASCAR remains as Neanderthal as they come.
Too bad they’re the most important ones: penalties and drugs.
This week was another reminder of that, with more questions than answers to leave fans scratching their heads instead of discussing the consistency and timeliness of their decisions. Take a penalty on Daytona winner Tony Stewart, for example, who failed post-qualifying inspection the Friday before the race. Once he did so, the time was disallowed which, in certain circumstances, would keep the car from making the race altogether. But Smoke’s team gets a mulligan. As part of NASCAR’s exclusive “top 35,” which guarantees a spot on the grid to the first 35 cars in owner points, he could cheat as much as possible and still start the race from the rear.
Huh? That’s like Brian Urlacher getting a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer but getting it taken off the board because he’s one of the NFL’s best players. In the end, Stewart used his 42nd starting spot to win the race, earning the maximum amount of points only to get docked six for the penalty in question. Six points? When subtracted from the total, that still leaves the man with the third-most points from the race itself, a compromise the antithesis of Goldilocks in that nothing feels exactly right. Some will say that since Stewart started the race with a legal car – it was fixed after inspection – there shouldn’t have been any consequences at all. Others, knowing the advantage these types of infractions can give a driver during a plate race, feel the book should have been thrown straight at the No. 14. Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus, after all, was threatened with a six-race suspension (ultimately erased on appeal) for a pre-practice Daytona 500 violation on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Or take the case of Danny Stockman, Austin Dillon’s crew chief who was suspended two weeks from the Nationwide Series after a post-qualifying violation of his own down at Daytona. For Stockman, it was the second violation that occurred during a probationary period but the first one didn’t result in missing time. Compare that to Kurt Busch, whose initial probation violation for cussing out a reporter — not a scenario that created an on-track advantage — resulted in him getting shutout of the racetrack, his ride, and a paycheck for a week. Confused? I’m sure. How in the world do these penalties compare?
Simple answer: they don’t. I’d love to point out these violations in the rulebook, educating you all, but in this age of transparency NASCAR doesn’t even have one available for public viewing. If I write down the answers (and I’m one of the lucky ones), even if the sanctioning body remains inconsistent you have to trust my responsibility as a journalist instead of looking up the text yourself – a next-step ability in this age of Wikipedia more and more people are expecting to legitimize the sports they watch. Gone are the days when a good ol’ boy family network can run things with an iron fist. Today, that’s a little too “conspiracy theorist” for a sporting audience that’s grown too smart for any secrets.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
That provides the perfect transition for the sport’s biggest whisper train heading into Loudon: drugs. AJ Allmendinger, occupying one of Penske Racing’s prized rides, remains on the sidelines this weekend six days after being “temporarily suspended” for drug use. What, why, how, where? Answers are quick to come in baseball, football or basketball, but require Sherlock Holmes to deconstruct the confusing policies of NASCAR Nation. As we all understand it, Allmendinger tested positive for a stimulant at Kentucky, above acceptable levels and according to NASCAR’s policies, making him an on-track danger to other competitors. Yet the ‘Dinger was not informed of the issue until the day of the race at Daytona, seven days later and ultimately pulled with less than 90 minutes to go before the driver’s meeting. The hasty decision left car owner Penske, an innocent victim, in such a lurch that he literally took substitute Sam Hornish Jr. off a TV stage in North Carolina and flew him in with seconds to spare before the event.
Why the lengthy gap between a positive test and the temporary suspension? Common sense tells you Aegis labs wasn’t working on Saturday morning, so that means Allmendinger may have had both qualifying and practice time with NASCAR’s knowledge he had been above elevated levels the week before. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A “B” sample test, to be conducted at Allmendinger’s request may take “several days” and ultimately exonerate him from any wrongdoing. In the meantime, “privacy concerns” have kept NASCAR from revealing the actual drug in question while the full results stay pending. All we know is it’s a “stimulant,” which could be one of hundreds of drugs in NASCAR’s policy book that, again, isn’t available for public consumption.
To a point, I understand it. In some other sports, like the NFL, confidentiality agreements can often supersede public knowledge as to the specifics of what a player tested positive for. But at this point, the word “drugs” has dashed Allmendinger’s reputation to the point there’s no recovery (unless a massive public relations apology campaign stays connected to a “B” sample that comes back negative). Adding a specific drug is insult to injury at this point, as the damage, in a sponsor’s eyes and for a garage reputation, has already been done. Which means if the sport still has to go through the process a second time, leaving question as to whether the drug policy was violated, why can’t Allmendinger still be racing, pending appeal? The second you pull him, it’s guilty until proven innocent where the driver is fighting a losing battle to clear his name. And if the “B” sample does come back with a negative result, in opposition to the “A” sample, what does that say about the sport’s testing system as a whole?
Three years after the Jeremy Mayfield controversy, the most high-profile driver suspended for drugs until last weekend, you’d think NASCAR would have learned lessons from it all. Back then, there wasn’t even a specific list drivers were clear on concerning what drugs could trigger a positive test. The court battle Mayfield pushed, while ultimately a losing one, revealed sloppy handling of samples, a convoluted policy and confusion over the whole system. That left the sport with no winners, no matter how many appeals got thrown out. With public perception skeptical, that means the onus is on NASCAR to prove both the consistency and the quality of its drug testing. The next time something happened, it would have served the sport well to have all answers readily available, a clear public path from peeing in a cup to kicking a driver out as a showcase for how they’ve put all their ducks in a row.
But NASCAR did not. Instead, we’re heading towards Friday no clearer on Allmendinger’s future and ultimate punishment than we were the Saturday before. Fair or not, in 2012 that’s the opposite of what society expects. After all, people don’t want to spend their spare time feeling confused. It’s OK for NASCAR officials to feel that way in private, but at some point, their final decisions need to come back clearer, concise and consistent.
Otherwise, fans won’t be bothered.
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