Stripping Hamlin of his win, NASCAR is finally taking technical inspections seriously

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Next Gen car, Next Gen punishment.

On Sunday evening, so soon after the finish of the 21st race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season that the confetti was still stuck to the hallowed concrete ground of Pocono Raceway’s Victory Lane, the racer who had just celebrated in that space was informed that his win had been taken away.

Denny Hamlin is no longer the winner of the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. He is no longer the season’s second three-time winner, no longer the lone all-time Pocono Raceway champion with seven wins and no longer tied with Tony Stewart for 15th on the all-time wins list at 49. Instead, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer now owns a page of the stock car racing history book that no driver wants to write.

His win was disqualified. Wiped out. Deleted. It’s not merely the first time that a racer at NASCAR’s top level has had a victory taken away via postrace technical inspection during the sport’s so-called Modern Era that began in 1972. This is the first time that it has happened since 1960. It feels like we’d better get used to it. Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to admit as much on Monday afternoon when they let the appeal deadline come and go without putting up a fight.

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NASCAR has always threatened to do this. It has promised one day it would happen. Beginning in 2019, facing criticism that it never did enough to punish those who used an illegal advantage to win a race — points and monetary fines but the win still stood — the sanctioning body pledged to do more, and it did, but at the lower levels, never in Cup. Until now.

Why now? Because now we have the still-new Next Gen car, the ride upon which NASCAR has gone all-in as the chariot that will drive the sport into a better future. A one-size-fits-all parity creator that is essentially delivered to teams in a box, purchased from approved vendors only. These 2022 Chevys, Fords and Toyotas are the result of years of research, tens of millions of dollars of investment and unprecedented cooperation between those three warring corporate car giants.

That car has delivered a ridiculously competitive season, with 14 winners in 21 weeks, spread out across so many drivers and teams that there have been five first-time winners and there is a very real chance that a race winner could be left out of the 16-team postseason this fall.

All of the above is why NASCAR told teams not to mess with the Next Gen. NASCAR warned there would be dire consequences if they did. But they had also said that before. A lot. Yet, in nearly 75 seasons of NASCAR Strictly Stock/Grand National/Cup Series racing, even those of us who fancy ourselves stock car racing historians were sent scrambling to find disqualifications of race days gone by.

In the very first Strictly Stock race, run in Charlotte on June 19, 1949, Glenn Dunnaway was flagged the winner, but had that victory taken away when postrace inspection revealed that his Ford was fashioned with reinforced “bootlegger springs” and the win was handed to Jim Roper (read more about that here). Then there was that April 17, 1960 mess, in Wilson, North Carolina, when Emanuel “Golden Greek” Zervakis was DQ’d for using an oversized fuel tank, giving the win to NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly.

That’s it. That’s pretty much the entire list.

None of the most notoriously tricked-out race cars were disqualified after that. Not Smokey Yunick’s race winners of the 1960s that had fuel hidden all over, including the rollbars. Not Darrell Waltrip’s rides that held pounds of ball bearings in those same roll bars, unloaded from the car to lighten it up via a pulled lever as DW shouted “Bombs away!” from the cockpit. Not even Richard Petty’s infamous 198th career victory, coming at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1983 via two major violations: running the wrong tires on the wrong side to gain grip and using an engine that was nearly 24 cubic inches too large. The King kept the win but was docked more than 100 points and a then-record $35,000 fine.

Fines grew throughout the 1990s and 2000s. NASCAR even taught us the term “encumbered” as they refused to take away wins but pointed to the fines and penalties and said those victories were “encumbered wins.” It was the racing equivalent to “A Christmas Story,” when Ralphie and his friends get the “I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive …” treatment from their teacher.

No one felt guilty because no one lost their trophies. No one. Until Hamlin on Sunday.

Hamlin was removed from the top of the box score because his No. 11 Toyota Camry had some sort of illegal material hidden within the nose of the car, a foreign object or substance deemed impermissible by the NASCAR rulebook, presumably placed there because it would aid the handling of the car around Pocono’s quirky triangle turns. That feels like nothing compared to those old-school cheat-ups of the past, but those racers weren’t working in the realm of thousandths of inches. Today’s competitors do. It wasn’t caught in prerace inspection because it was hidden under the car’s vinyl wrap (spoiler alert: they no longer paint race cars, they wrap them) and that isn’t removed before the event, but it is afterward.

“There really was no reason why there was some material that was somewhere it shouldn’t have been and that does basically come down to a DQ,” NASCAR Cup Series director Brad Moran said in the Pocono Raceway media center a couple of hours after the event had ended and Hamlin was long gone back to North Carolina with the trophy. “I can’t get into all the details of what the issues were, but both vehicles had the same issue. And unfortunately, they were not acceptable to pass inspection.”

“Both vehicles,” as in Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who’d finished second. The win instead rolled down to third-place finisher Chase Elliott, his fourth victory of 2022 and undoubtedly the most bizarre of his career.

So bizarre that when chatting with NASCAR media on Monday morning, Elliott didn’t really know what to say. He admitted that he didn’t know how he should feel other than the fact that he didn’t feel like celebrating.

“I don’t think any driver wants to win that way. I certainly don’t,” confessed the championship points leader. “I’m not going to celebrate someone’s misfortune. That doesn’t seem right to me. I crossed the line third. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it.”

When asked how he planned to retrieve the trophy from Hamlin, he said he wouldn’t. “If he wants to keep it, he can keep it.”

Good thing, because on Sunday night, Hamlin retweeted a photo of his daughter waving the checkered flag, just as she did during his victory lap, riding shotgun in her daddy’s then-winning race car, and added: “Yeah, good luck getting that back.”

Still, the record book says that Elliott won, and Hamlin finished 35th. When the paychecks are sent to teams, they will reflect that result as well. Heck, even down at the Dawsonville Pool Room they have officially recognized their favorite son as the winner, blowing the siren on Sunday night as they tweeted out: “Winner, winner, Joe Gibbs Racing are cheaters!”

It’s all super weird, right? Weird only because we didn’t see it coming. We never expected it. Joe Gibbs Racing certainly didn’t expect it. Why would he? Why would they? Unless you were one of the 5,000 people at the Wilson Speedway in spring 1960 watching Zervakis get engine shamed, none of us had ever seen it before.

Well, we have now, and it feels like it won’t be the last time. In fact, we know it won’t, because racers will always work overtime to find advantages within the gray areas of the rulebook. They should. That’s their job and they have always taken that task very seriously.

But it’s also NASCAR’s job to catch them and punish them if they do. Now, at long last, NASCAR seems to be taking that assignment pretty seriously, too.

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