Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway was supposed to be a turning point in Denny Hamlin’s career. If the win had remained official, he would have tied Hall of Famer Tony Stewart with 49 career wins, surpassed the legendary Jeff Gordon for most wins all time at Pocono with 7, and tied current points leader Chase Elliott for most wins on the season with three.
Oh, it was a turning point, all right. It just went in a direction probably no one envisioned, with both Hamlin and Kyle Busch being disqualified due to post-race inspection issues.
Hamlin took in the original monumental moment with one of the more iconic celebrations of the season, which included a perfect burnout, an homage to Stephen Curry’s sleeping celebration, and a touching moment with his daughter.
With the win holding importance across three facets of his career, everything about the moment seemed like the perfect culmination of his storied success.
That is, until a piece of tape ruined everything.
Instead, all those records were put on hold. If that was not enough, runner-up and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch was also disqualified as well, thus giving Elliott a commanding four wins on the season. Meanwhile, Hamlin was relegated to maintaining the two wins that he entered Pocono with.
While the move initially caused controversy, JGR’s decision not to appeal NASCAR’s decision shifted the discussion towards a more confusing tone. Although many winning cars have failed post-race inspection over the years, disqualifying a victory is unprecedented in the modern era.
Which begs the question: What made this tape egregious enough to nullify Hamlin’s monumental day, as well as also get Busch and his car kicked out as well?
In short, probably nothing more than the fact that it simply broke a rule at any capacity. There’s no question that NASCAR has taken a no-nonsense approach to enforcing the rules package since the start of the Next Generation car this season and the single-source supplier era, but a decision like this has not occurred since 1960.
Earlier this year, RFK Racing became the first team to face infractions for fabricating a single-source part and NASCAR dropped their gavel with force. Both Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher’s teams faced 100-point penalties to go along with $100,000 fines and crew chief suspensions.
These are the newly laid out terms of an L2 Infraction, and then this past Tuesday during a routine teardown back at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in suburban Charlotte, the No. 34 entry of Michael McDowell faced the same punishment after a part of his car violated the new regulations.
Now, Hamlin and Busch did not fail inspection for a single-source supplier fabrication, so it’s understandable that they received different penalties. However, many would argue that Joe Gibbs Racing faced more severe punishment.
Interestingly enough, NASCAR allows +/- .015 of an inch of tolerance in body panels and the tape was .012 inches thick. Clearly, a penalty is warranted due to the principle that the tape’s presence is violated, but it’s hard to say if it actually made a big enough difference to alter the outcome of the race.
Ultimately, as unfamiliar as Sunday’s decision may be, NASCAR has every right to enforce its rules as it deems fit. JGR echoed that sentiment when it respected the decision and declined to appeal.
Rules are rules. An inch of leeway can be taken a mile if it’s not taken seriously, leaving NASCAR no option but to nip the issue in the bud. Whether or not the decision will go down in history as an outlier will take some years to determine, but needless to say the tape will live on as NASCAR lore either way.
If there is any silver lining, Hamlin got his much publicly-promised revenge on Ross Chastain. Chastain, who was one of the only cars who could keep up with Hamlin, had his fate sealed when he lined up on Hamlin’s outside on a restart. Almost as if to test Hamlin’s threats, he chose the outside and ran hard on the outside in Turn 1. The two did not last side-by-side for long as Hamlin wasted no time running Chastain’s corner exit high, which forced the No. 1 car into the wall.
Ironically, with Hamlin’s disqualification, Chastain still ended up with a better finishing position despite his car going home on a wrecker.
As unpredictable as Pocono was this past weekend, it surely did not disappoint. The race had it all: plot twists, strategy, drama, and action.
And in the end, a ton of captivating storylines emerged from it.
In a way, it seemed like the tricky triangle may have found new life with the Next Gen car, much like many tracks have shown earlier in the season. Although the driver who took home the trophy was not the winning driver in the end, the lessons and messages sent from the weekend were encouraging in terms of the sport’s future.
Now it’s onward to Indianapolis and to the road course this Sunday. While the penalties vs. Hamlin and Busch are now in JGR’s rearview mirror, and the consistency will likely once again fall back into place, but as long as fans have a racing product this good, there’s a lot to be excited about moving forward not just for JGR but the sport as a whole, as well.