Dec. 31 marks a new beginning for drivers under NASCAR probation
As 2013 arrives, the sins of the past year are cast away for many in NASCAR. For those who acquired penalties, they often include "probation until Dec. 31." No matter the infraction discovered in pre-race inspection, post-race examination or some other time during a race weekend, all is forgiven, but certainly not forgotten, by series officials on Dec. 31.
In the new year, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is forgiven for his frisky phone at Daytona, Jeff Gordon is absolved for his actions at Phoenix (at least by NASCAR, not so much by Clint Bowyer) and Kurt Busch, among others, is free to pursue his quest for victory without the threat of additional sanctions.
Admittedly, the phrase "NASCAR probation'' has been used as a punch line by many in the sport through the years. While the ambiguity of what happens next if someone on NASCAR probation violates the rule is maddening to fans, NASCAR has shown, at times, probation can add to a penalty.
Busch found that out this year. Already under probation for an incident after the Southern 500, NASCAR suspended Busch, forcing him to miss one Cup race, for verbally abusing a reporter after a Nationwide race at Dover.
"I'll be honest, I liked [Busch's] answer,'' Tony Stewart said on SiriusXM Satellite Radio's NASCAR channel in June.
Of course, probation is like an old friend to Stewart. He was on probation until Dec. 31 in 2002 and 2005, thus he finished both years as a series champion and on probation. Stewart's penalty in 2002 was for an incident with a photographer at Indianapolis. In 2005 he was penalized for hitting another competitor's car after a race in what was then the Busch Series.
In a way, Keselowski can relate to Stewart -- both won championships while on probation.
Keselowski was penalized for having a cell phone in his car at Phoenix in November, which was discovered when he tweeted during a red flag delay late in that race. NASCAR prohibits phones, onboard computers and other similar devices in the car on a race weekend to prevent teams from gathering additional data or manipulating the car. Thus Keselowski was penalized, but many fans were outraged at what they perceived as the pettiness of the infraction.
"I do feel naked when I don't have my phone,'' Keselowski said at Homestead, a week after he also was fined $25,000 for having a cell phone in his car. "It's my security blanket.''
Security he'll no longer feel.
Security wasn't an issue at Phoenix in the season's penultimate race, especially after Jeff Gordon retaliated for a series of spats with Clint Bowyer throughout the season. Gordon's revenge was to wreck Bowyer. It took two attempts. The first time, Gordon bounced off the wall but he slowed and waited for Bowyer to come back around before finishing the job.
After Gordon climbed from his wrecked car in the garage, a melee ensued between the crews. Bowyer provided one of the lasting images of the 2012 Cup season by sprinting from his car on pit road to the garage to go after Gordon after seeing the fight on a video board. Later five officers guarded the NASCAR hauler after Gordon entered to meet with Bowyer and series officials after the race.
After meeting with series officials, Gordon knew he would have a series of penalties to face. "They've got to do what they've got to do," Gordon said, "just like I had to do what I had to do.''
For his part, Gordon was fined $100,000, docked 25 points and placed on probation until Dec. 31.
Also having his probation expunged as the year ends is John Wes Townely, who competed in the Camping World Truck Series and ran select Nationwide races. He had been on probation since March 22, penalized as a result of a Feb. 7 DUI arrest after crashing a car near Athens, Ga.
This time of the year isn't just for the drivers, though. It's also for crew chiefs and crew members punished by NASCAR for various violations throughout the season.
Brian Pattie, Bowyer's crew chief, was fined $25,000 and placed on probation until Dec. 31 for the fracas in the garage at Phoenix after Gordon wrecked Bowyer. Pattie was penalized because a crew chief is responsible the actions of the team.
Slugger Labbe, crew chief for Paul Menard, also sees his record cleaned. NASCAR issued a variety of penalties against Labbe and members of his Richard Childress Racing team after series officials discovered equipment that had been certified had been altered.
The only other Cup crew chief penalized was Luke Lambert. He's with Jeff Burton but was serving as Elliott Sadler's crew chief for Richard Childress Racing in the Nationwide Series when crew chiefs from RCR and Turner Motorsports each were penalized, including probation, at Richmond in the spring for streamlining the contours of the car beyond what is approved by the series director.
That's in the past. A new year brings a clean slate for every competitor in NASCAR. It's just up to them if it will stay that way throughout 2013 or if they'll be called into the NASCAR hauler at some point during the season and later penalized and put on probation.