Ryan Newman has been penalised 75 championship points and three key members of the crew working on the #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team have received six-race suspensions after the team was deemed to have tampered with its race tyres at the recent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
NASCAR said that an investigation had revealed that the #31 team had violated the series' rule stating that it is illegal to use "any device, modification, or procedure to the tyre or wheel, including the valve stem hardware, that is used to release pressure, beyond normal pressure adjustments, from the tyre and/or inner shield."
It's understood that NASCAR had been on the lookout in recent races for teams manipulating their tyres by bleeding air from the tires, most probably by putting a small hole in them. Bleeding air from the tyres increases grip during an on-track stint, counteracting the natural loss of grip that would be expected from tyre wear and the build-up of air temperatures.
Drivers including Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin had been questioned at media appearances last weekend about rumours that some teams were drilling small holes in the tyres.
"There's a lot of talk, there's a lot of dialogue, there's a lot of rumors in the garage," Jeff Gordon's crew chief Alan Gustafson had admitted. "So yeah, I think some people think something is going on."
"You talk about fooling around with the tyres, I would assume that's pretty much they kick you out," team owner Roger Penske had suggested. "We all want to be competitive and we are all working on the edge all the time, but I think there are a few areas which are definitely over the line.
Saying that it was conducting an 'audit' on tyre performance, NASCAR took tyres from Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano at Phoenix International Raceway on March 15, and from Harvick, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard as well as Newman at Auto Club Speedway the following week. At the most recent race in Martinsville, NASCAR took custody of tyres from Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth for analysis at NASCAR's Research and Development Center and then by an independent laboratory.
All the tyres taken for testing duly passed inspection - with the exception of Newman's.
As a result of the findings on the #31's tyres, an official penalty notice from NASCAR stated that the RCR team had been handed a P5 penalty, one level down from the most serious possible level of infraction in the series. The sanctioning body deems any violations of the rules regarding the engine and fuel as the most serious in the competition, with tyres a very close second.
Newman has now been docked 75 points which drops him from sixth to 26th in the Sprint Cup championship standings, meaning that it's highly unlikely that he will now be able to make this autumn's Chase play-offs based on points as he did in 2014. He could still make it in with a race win, but that's something he's not managed since joining RCR at the start of 2014.
Richard Childress himself has also been docked the same number of points in the car owners' championship, dropping from seventh to 27th in the standings.
In addition, crew chief Luke Lambert has been fined a total of $125,000 and suspended from competition for six Sprint Cup races plus any non-championship races or special events like May's Sprint All-Star Race which take place during the suspension period. Lambert will also be on NASCAR probation through to the end of the year.
The team's tyre technician James Bender and team engineer Philip Surgen have also received six-race suspensions and will similarly be on probation for the rest of 2015.
"NASCAR takes very seriously its responsibility to govern and regulate the rules of the sport in order to ensure competitive balance," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice-president and chief racing development officer. "We've been very clear that any modifications to race vehicle tires is an unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated."
RCR now has the right to appeal both the findings and the severity of the penalty, and on Tuesday evening the team indicated it was still considering its options over whether to do so.
"We understand the seriousness of the penalty," said team president Torrey Galida in a statement. "In fact, RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against 'tyre bleeding' since the rumors began to surface last season.
"Once NASCAR provides us with the specific details of the infraction we will conduct a further internal investigation, and evaluate our options for an appeal," he added.
If the team does not appeal then the suspensions will start immediately with the next race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 12, with the crew members not allowed back until the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on May 31.
Kyle Larson released from hospital
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson has left hospital after spending two days under observation following a fainting spell on Saturday that ruled him out of competition in this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville.
However, the 22-year-old is not yet cleared to return to NASCAR competition, the team revealed in a statement released on Tuesday.
"After extensive testing and observation over the last few days, Kyle Larson was released from the hospital last night and has finished up final tests today," the team said. "He is currently waiting for final doctor recommendations in order to clear him to return to all NASCAR related activities."
Fortunately the Sprint Cup Series is taking this upcoming weekend off for Easter, meaning that Larson has over a week to complete any final tests and be signed off for a return to racing at Texas Motor Speedway on April 12.
Larson was replaced at short notice in the #42 car by Regan Smith, who finished 16th in the STP 500 despite starting from the back of the grid as a result of the driver change.
Superspeedway qualifying adjusted again
NASCAR announced this week that it was rejigging the rules for qualifying at superspeedway tracks, following the controversial session at Daytona in February which saw multi-car crashes as cars driving in packs jockeyed for the best position for aerodynamic advantage.
The updated format will take effect at Talladega Superspeedway for both the Xfinity and Sprint Cup Series events in April.
Qualifying will now consist of two rounds of qualifying with a ten minute interval in between, with the top 12 posted lap speeds advancing to the second round. Cars will take one, timed lap in each round of qualifying with each vehicle released at a predetermined timed interval as directed by race control, with the sanctioning body reserving the right to have more than one vehicle engaging in qualifying runs at the same time.
Qualifying order for the first round will be determined by a random draw while the order in the final round will go from the slowest to fastest speeds set in the first round.
Full procedures for the 2016 Daytona 500 will be announced at a later date.
NASCAR criticises Indiana law change
NASCAR has joined the chorus of criticism against a new law passed by the Indiana legislature which appears to legalise discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people by businesses in the state by allowing them to refuse service.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits state laws that "substantially burden" a person's religious beliefs and defines a 'person' to include religious institutions, businesses and associations.
"NASCAR is disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana," said a statement from NASCAR's senior vice-president and chief communications officer Brett Jewkes. "We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance.
"We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race."
NASCAR stages one of its biggest races of the year, the Brickyard 400, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July. Track president Doug Boles said on Twitter that "IMS will continue to warmly welcome all who share our enthusiasm for racing."
Despite the national outcry about the new legislation, Arkansas has also followed suit in enacting a similar measure. However, Indiana Governor Mike Pence subsequently said in a press conference that he would now direct state legislators to "fix" the law to clarify that it does not condone discrimination against gays and lesbians.