Why NASCAR Has To Crack Down On Post-Race Burnouts

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports /

Suddenly NASCAR cares. At least about post-race celebratory burnouts anyway.

Last Sunday Denny Hamlin scored his first Cup road course victory. The win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Cheez-it 355 came in the second road course race of the season and two months after Hamlin lost the road course race at Sonoma on the final corner after being shoved out of the way by eventual race winner Tony Stewart.

Sunday, Hamlin led 10 laps and was finally able to score his first Cup road course win (Hamlin won a NASCAR Busch/Xfinity series race on the road course in Mexico in 2006). After Sunday’s race , Hamlin did a celebratory burnout that ended up shredding the rear tires on his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and he had to walk to victory lane as the crew replaced the tires and pushed the winning car to him to complete the celebration. And why shouldn’t he celebrate? After all, it was his first Cup road course win, and he was suffering back spasms that almost forced him to miss the race entirely.  He also survived challenges from Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. in the waning laps. So Hamlin, who also won this year’s Daytona 500 had a lot to celebrate.

His long smoky burnout along the frontstretch didn’t just shred his back tires, it put on show that had fans cheering.  The celebratory burnout has become the common way for NASCAR drivers to celebrate a victory, and fans love it.

Up until 2012, there was even a contest prior to the NASCAR All-Star race that allowed a driver to compete to see who did the best burnout.  Burnouts have been around for many, many years.  But now however we may see them regulated, or done away with altogether.

And the drivers will have no one to blame but themselves.

It’s no secret that NASCAR teams try to push the envelope of NASCAR’s rules.  Since the sport was founded, crew chiefs had tried to coax every little bit of speed out of the car they can.  Many times this pushing results in NASCAR pushing back, meaning that the NASCAR hammer falls, and falls hard. Remember in 2006 when Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson was escorted from Daytona prior to the Daytona 500?  Knaus not only pushed the envelope, he tore open and threw it in the trash.

The strict enforcement of the rules by NASCAR is a genuine effort to keep as level a playing field as possible.  Teams meanwhile, are on a mission to try to get their car to go as fast as possible.  Most often times the crew’s efforts are thwarted; the infraction is discovered during inspection at the track and the team is forced to make repairs on the spot.  Hence the reason we sometimes see cars late to qualifying, or teams are seen working on cars just outside the inspection line while a NASCAR official hovers nearby.

Sometimes though, teams do get something past NASCAR inspectors, make adjustments after inspection that may not sit well with NASCAR officials.  Should they not win the race, it’s usually no harm, no foul. However, should a team win they are well aware that their car will undergo extensive scrutiny at the NASCAR R&D center later in the week.  In that case, it would make sense to do whatever they can to hide whatever was done.

There has never been a verified case of a post race burnout resulting in enough damage to a car that an improper modification was hidden.  NASCAR conspiracy theorists, and there are plenty of them, though point to a conversation between Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Knaus prior to the October race at Talladega in which Knaus told Johnson that if he won he needed to “crack the back” of the car ostensibly during a post race burnout.  Johnson finished seventh in that race, so the point was moot.  Knaus later defended his comments and the issue slowly faded.

That was until last season.  In October of 2015, Kevin Harvick, needing to win to avoid elimination from the next round of the Chase, dominated the race at Dover leading a race high 355 of the 400 laps. His celebratory burnout ended with the back of Chevy hitting the wall. Questions about his real intentions began to fly.

Oct 4, 2015; Dover, DE, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) crosses the finish line to win the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. ( Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 4, 2015; Dover, DE, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) crosses the finish line to win the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. ( Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports) /

Keselowski said at the time that such actions have been done by driver’s in the past to cover up any sort of envelope pushing modifications.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Keselowski told NASCAR.com. “The cars aren’t (inspected) the same way at the track as they can be … at the R&D Center. “

“It’s been going on for a long time. I’m not making any accusations,” he added.  “It’s not anything new to this sport…I’ve definitely blown tires out. I think every driver has done something to do some kind of damage to their car.”

When asked at Charlotte the following week about the Harvick burnout, there didn’t seem to be too much concern from NASCAR.

“Post-race burnouts have been a part of the sport for a long time as they give the winning driver the opportunity to express their enthusiasm for their win and give fans an exclamation point to the victory,” NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp told NASCAR.com.

Fast forward to this season and the issue was raised again.  In May, Kyle Busch won at Kansas Speedway leading a total of 69 laps. In his post race celebration, Busch also damaged his car.

NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition Scott Miller was asked the following Monday on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio about the damage to Busch’s car because of the burnout and if he thought it was somewhat suspicious.

“We really don’t like to see that happen,’’ Miller said. “There was a little bit of a rash of it last year and we kind of got that in check, and this is the first time we’ve seen it in a while. We certainly don’t like to see it. I believe that Kyle was very happy because he’s really, really struggled at that race track, and I think he just got a little overzealous there with the celebration.

“We’ve had a lot of (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars through NASCAR, so we have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing with their stuff. Not that suspicious to me.’’

NASCAR may have been discussing this issue behind the scenes for quite some time. After all with the inspection process tighter than ever before the opportunity for teams to do some sort of modification has become limited.  Even on pit road these days with the all the new scrutiny including hi-def cameras, a simple pulling out of the fender flare during a pit stop can earn a team a penalty.

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It now looks like NASCAR is starting to shut the door on the final area that could show a team had an unfair advantage.  If a team does somehow get away with some sort of unapproved modification after inspection, they may soon not be able to cover it up, if that’s  indeed what they are doing with their burnouts.

Monday on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer hinted that the sanctioning body is considering some sort of restrictions on the post race celebratory burnout.

“It’s something that’s been out there that we are trying to avoid yet balance the celebration,” O’Donnell said. “I think (we will see something) in the very near future, and this isn’t putting it all on the 11 car, this is something we’ve talked about, it’s a trend we don’t like to see.”

O’Donnell said NASCAR wants to allow celebrations, but they don’t want the racecars damaged.

“We want to see a celebration and we think that drivers can celebrate without doing that,” he said. “You’ll probably see us sooner than later put something in place that covers us for that as you head into the last quarter of the season.

“Again, not there yet, we’re talking to a lot of the teams about it but I think everybody is on board with the direction we want to go in.”

A driver celebrating a win with a smoky burnout won’t end.  It just might be curtailed a bit. And NASCAR has every right to do so. In the end, all they want is a level playing field, and by ensuring that the winning car can be inspected with no damage caused post race, the envelope will be a bit more narrow.  Teams will no doubt continue to push that envelope, but at the end of the day, the level playing field NASCAR wants will be that much closer.