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Before Ross Chastain’s outlandish move at Martinsville, which triggered a rule against similar future behavior, the big NASCAR Cup Series story of 2022 was parity. Before parity, though, the headlines were all about pit crews being unable to keep wheels attached with the Next Gen car’s single lug nut. Loose wheels pose an obvious safety issue and one that NASCAR rules dealt with harshly. By season’s end, however, the frequency of slip-ups had decreased. In the offseason, NASCAR dialed back one set of penalties for incidents but added another.

The tradeoff looked like a wash – harsher sanctions during the race and a lighter set of suspensions afterward. It took just one instance, and some persistence by Martin Truex Jr., to show the new rule doesn’t have the teeth NASCAR might have intended.

Suspensions have been reduced, but NASCAR added a new penalty

Martin Truex Jr. drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 26, 2023. | Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Martin Truex Jr. drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 26, 2023. | Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

There were five per wheel when NASCAR rules cracked down on loose lug nuts in 2016. By 2021, the final season of the Gen 6 car, a wheel coming loose meant four-race suspensions for the crew chief and two crewmen. The same penalty was in force in 2022 with the introduction of the Next Gen car and its bigger, heavier wheels attached with a single, center lug nut.

Violations, followed by penalties, were an almost weekly occurrence in the first half of the Cup Series. By year’s end, however, the pace had slowed. In the offseason, NASCAR changed the rule in two significant ways for cars losing wheels outside the pit area:

  • Suspensions were cut to just two weeks, and limited to just two crew members, leaving the crew chiefs in place.
  • NASCAR began holding the car in question for two laps during the race, potentially ending any chance of winning.

If a wheel comes off during cautions while the car is on pit road, the driver restarts at the back of the field. If it happens on pit row under green-flag conditions, it becomes a pass-thru penalty.

There were no loose wheels in the season-opening Daytona 500, but Martin Truex Jr. ran afoul of the rule over the weekend at Fontana on Lap 77 of the scheduled 200 on the two-mile oval.

MTJ more than just survived going two laps down

Martin Truex Jr. pitted at the end of the opening stage. But when he rolled back onto the track again, he and the No. 19 Toyota team knew from the vibration that the car was in trouble. MTJ tried limping the car around the track, but the loose wheel separated from the car.

When he returned to the pits, Truex had to sit there for two laps. His situation wasn’t nearly as bad as that of Kyle Larson, who went 16 laps down early with electrical issues, but it put a dent in the Stage 2 strategy for the team.

However, two things happened triggering other NASCAR rules. First, there was the multi-car wreck on Lap 88, which ended the day for teammate Christopher Bell and three others. Then, Ty Dillon’s Chevy stopped on the track on Lap 142, which was early in the third stage.

In each instance, Truex got the wave-around as the first lapped car. Suddenly, he was back on the lead lap. The effect was dramatic; he went from 26th place to 12th in the span of 24 laps, when he pitted for the final time.

NASCAR handed down its penalties on Tuesday

Martin Truex Jr. finished 11th in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race, picking up a healthy 28 points despite incurring the two-lap penalty. The lesson learned? The penalty isn’t necessarily a day-killer on the big tracks – provided the mistake happens early. With the right combination of stage breaks and other cautions, a patient driver can work his way back into the mix.

As for the rest of the punishment, NASCAR did hand down two-week suspensions on Tuesday to tire changer Danny Olszowy and jackman Kellen Mills. Per NASCAR rules, that will take them out of the mix at Las Vegas and Phoenix but get them back into the pits on March 19 at Atlanta.

The 28 points earned at Auto Club Speedway on what could easily have been a 25th-place day takes much of the sting out of the short-term setback.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].


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