Since the very first race of the season, NASCAR has had a serious problem on its hands. Kaz Grala’s No. 50 team produced the first loose wheel of the season during the Daytona 500 and showed that securing the single lug nut on the Next Gen car wasn’t as easy as it looked or sounded.
Unfortunately, it was the first of many. Incredibly, NASCAR has failed to address the source of the loose wheels, which have now happened 13 times, but has instead opted to punish the teams each time. The penalty has been clear — a four-race suspension of the crew chief and two pit crew members.
Then last week happened. Christopher Bell lost a wheel on pit road in Atlanta, but his team escaped penalty. Questions abound. Why the change? Who decided on the change? What are the determining factors now on whether a team gets punished?
And now, this week, NASCAR has further muddied the waters by returning to its old ways, implementing a four-race suspension for Austin Cindric’s team after it suffered a loose wheel on pit road at New Hampshire.
Loose wheels have been a problem for NASCAR all year
Grala’s loose wheel during the Daytona 500 was an eye-opener for the drivers, teams, and fans. It showed that it could happen with the new car. NASCAR then revealed how it would respond to such an incident by handing down its first four-race suspension.
Since that opening race, there have been 12 additional incidents. Anyone who thinks it’s isolated to the lower-tiered teams hasn’t been paying attention. It’s happened to both Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin’s teams.
Both crew chiefs sat for four weeks.
NASCAR sends confusing message with Christopher Bell
Late in the race last week at Atlanta, Christopher Bell’s pit crew, which included several new members after a swap with Bubba Wallace’s crew, failed to secure the left-rear wheel, and it came off as he exited his pit box. Two cars dodged the wheel that rolled several pit boxes away.
A couple of days later, Scott Miller, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, said during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that each lost wheel would be considered before ruling it a safety violation.
“That’s always a hard call for us, right?” Miller said. “We’re still continuing to look at that incident, and really the potential consequence for the wheel rolling down pit road. Now if that thing would have been going twice as fast as it was, we would have had a whole field on pit road, we may view that different than we did with hardly any cars on pit road, no speed to the tire, and it not getting away very far. So we always have a very difficult job sorting through what crosses the line and what doesn’t, and we’re still working through that on that particular case.”
The next day, NASCAR didn’t issue a penalty.
Austin Cindric penalized for loose wheel on pit road
On Sunday in New Hampshire, Austin Cindric was leaving pit road when his left-front wheel came off. More cars were on pit road, and the wheel rolled further before stopping harmlessly against the inside wall.
On Tuesday, Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, appeared on SiriusXM, suggested the situations between Cindric and Bell were different, and prepared fans for what was to come.
“The amount of speed that the tire is carrying down pit road,” Sawyer said. “Did it impede another competitor? All those things go into the decision-making and obviously the distance that one tire traveled on pit road. The 20 car versus what the 2 car was significantly different.
“Although the optics are a loss of wheel on pit road, the two scenarios are quite a bit different. We’ll continue to dissect that and look at it. Again, we don’t want to over officiate but tires coming off is a huge safety concern and we just have to make sure that we’re handling that correctly.”
A day later, NASCAR dispensed a four-race suspension to Cindric’s crew chief Jeremy Bullins and two crew members.
NASCAR fails to address serious problem and creates confusion with latest decision
Whatever prompted the decision by officials two weeks ago to take a case-by-case approach with each loose wheel situation remains unclear. Regardless of the reason, NASCAR has now taken what was once a black-and-white ruling and made it very gray with more questions than answers.
How fast is too fast? How is that speed determined? With a radar gun? How many cars must be on pit road for it to be deemed dangerous? How far does the tire have to roll?
Instead of producing a bunch of questions, NASCAR should be answering one question teams have been asking for months — when is the governing body going to actually provide the teams with sufficient equipment that properly installs wheels?
Incredibly, that’s the question posed by multiple people, including Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels. He called out NASCAR back in April for providing inadequate pit guns.
“A few things that I’m going to say are inadequate with the safety mechanisms that are supposed to keep the wheel nut from falling off that I don’t believe you can blame the teams, and the tire changers, the pit performers every single time for what we’ve seen this year,” Daniels said. “I would say that NASCAR needs to step up, and NASCAR needs to improve the pit guns. NASCAR needs to improve the stuff that we’re using.”
Daniels also described the penalties as being nonsensical.
“If something fails or something doesn’t go according to plan, and a wheel, heaven forbid, comes off, which we all agree is a massive safety issue, we’re then going to make it an even bigger safety issue the next time that team comes to the track because we’re going to suspend two of those guys for four weeks that are the best experts that that team has at the time to put on their car. So we’re going to go ahead and put them on the sidelines for four weeks and we’re going to bring in two guys that are less experienced to go pit the car and do the same thing. So that in itself just doesn’t make sense.”
It almost feels like NASCAR’s change on loose wheel rulings is an attempt to minimize the penalties as much as possible and haphazardly address Daniels’ remark. While good in theory, it sends a confusing message to the teams and doesn’t address anything.
Instead of adjusting the penalties, NASCAR might listen to Daniels’ first piece of advice and step up and provide the teams with equipment that actually works in the first place and prevents loose wheels from happening altogether.
Until that happens, we’ll be having this same conversation for the rest of the season and waiting to see which way NASCAR rules like an umpire who doesn’t know a strike from a ball.