NASCAR issued historic penalties Tuesday to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Sprint Cup team with driver Ryan Newman after finding altered tires used in a race March 22 in Fontana, California. Driver Newman was docked 75 driver points and car owner Richard Childress 75 owner points. The penalty drops Newman from sixth to 27th in the series standings.
Luke Lambert, crew chief for Newman, was fined $125,000 and suspended from the next six Cup races plus any non-points races during that span. He’s also been placed on probation through December 31/. In addition, James Bender, the team’s tire technician, and Philip Surgen, a team engineer, have been suspended from the next six races, including any non-points events during that time and placed on probation through December 31.
“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 in an emailed statement announcing the penalties.“We’ve been very clear that any modifications to race vehicle tires is an unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated.”
The talk of altered tires has been circulating in the NASCAR garage for several weeks. NASCAR confiscated the tires from two teams, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, after the season’s fourth Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. Harvick’s tires were again confiscated for an independent study after last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway. Also confiscated were the tires from Chevrolet drivers Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Newman.
NASCAR did not specify what they found wrong with the tires. Some crew chiefs have said that by allowing the tires to change pressure, teams can gain an advantage. According to one crew chief lower tire pressure can increase grip. Last Friday at Martinsville Speedway, crew chiefs Alan Gustafson and Chad Knaus from Hendrick Motorsports met with the media and talked about the tire issues.
“It’s hard to speculate because that’s all I can do, but in my experience there’s a lot of smoke around that, right?” said Gustafson. “There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of dialogue, there’s a lot of rumors in the garage. So yeah, I think some people think something is going on. And is NASCAR reacting to that or do they feel uncomfortable with what’s going on? I don’t know that answer.
“I do think that it is something that’s on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds,” he added. “Obviously NASCAR is trying to make sure that we’re all on a level playing field and if anyone is violating that that they’ll pay the price, which they’ve reminded us this morning is very, very stiff. That’s all I know, but anything beyond that speculation beside the fact is that it’s a hot topic obviously.”
Fox TV analyst and former crew chief, Larry McReynolds, said it isn’t a surprise NASCAR came down hard on the No. 31 team. He said the three major area teams shouldn’t tamper with are the engine, fuel and tires.
“Go back prior to a couple of years ago and anybody tampering with tires usually was using a substance to soften the compound and give the tires more grip,” McReynolds said in an email. “It’s now noted teams have been doing things to bleed air out of the tires, but NASCAR views that the same as softening tires because it’s altering the tire. Sometimes we take for granted those four tires are the only thing connecting a 3,200 pound car to the track. NASCAR doesn’t take kindly to anything that might alter and put in jeopardy the integrity of the tire. That’s why they came down so hard.”
“For years, NASCAR imposed a minimum air pressure rule,” he added. “There is no mandate this year– only a recommendation from Goodyear. But bleeding air out of the tires helps the performance of the car over the course of a run at any size track. If you bleed air off, you don’t have to start as low on air pressure. Air pressure builds over the course of a run due to heat. As pressure builds up, performance starts to suffer. There is an optimum air pressure at which the cars perform, and if teams can bleed air off of the tires, they come closer to accomplishing that optimum pressure. “
An RCR spokesperson issued a statement via email shortly after the penalty was announced. RCR president Torrey Galida said the organization would conduct an internal investigation and evaluate its options for an appeal.
“We understand the seriousness of the penalty,” he said. “In fact, RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against ‘tire bleeding’ since the rumors began to surface last season.”