LAS VEGAS -- Most sports organization start the year with a point of emphasis on certain rules. The first few weeks then prove whether officials will enforce rules differently than years prior.
NASCAR often employs a similar officiating offseason reset. The crew chiefs have an idea of hot-button topics and parts and pieces that could receive more scrutiny. They can see new wording of rules as a reaction to fishy stuff from a year ago. But they don't know how NASCAR will truly enforce things until they get to the track.
Add a new head official this year -- NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller -- and that made things even more unpredictable entering 2016. The old guard of Robin Pemberton and John Darby has vanished over the past few years; Darby's tenure as Sprint Cup director ended after 2013 with Richard Buck replacing him, Pemberton departed after last year with Miller taking his perch. The Scott Miller and Richard Buck Show now rule the Sprint Cup garage.
When NASCAR took points away from six teams this week for Atlanta infractions, it certainly made people in the industry take notice of how the show will play out.
"Scott Miller and Richard Buck have tried to message being consistent and telling us what their expectations are," Hendrick Motorsports executive vice president Doug Duchardt said in the Sprint Cup garage Thursday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"They made some decisions this week, and as a competitor you take notice how NASCAR responds to that. You take that in and work from there from what they're laying out the guidelines."
Six points penalties in one week might seem harsh and give the impression that NASCAR's new brass has brought with it a big ol' hammer. But some would view NASCAR as too lenient and somewhat inconsistent to start the season. It impounded the Furniture Row Racing car for a roof-flap violation in Daytona 500 qualifying and gave crew chief Cole Pearn only probation. Another roof flap infraction, albeit a different piece (a spring and not an adjustor), at Atlanta warranted a one-race penalty and a 15-point penalty to driver Martin Truex Jr.
"It's not like we were trying to pull something over on somebody. ... People in the garage area talk and [Pearn] feels like, 'Do people really think I'm stupid enough after what happened at Daytona to try to pull something over on NASCAR in the same area?'"Furniture Row will appeal the severity of the penalty, but with a piece designed for safety, few believe the team has much of a chance at success and the pulse in the garage is the team got off easy (few complain publicly because they know they inevitably will end up in the same boat fighting a penalty). The Furniture Row team swears an old roof flap resulted in the mistake at Atlanta and it had no performance enhancement, making the suspension, even with the previous Daytona penalty, unwarranted.
Martin Truex Jr.
"I don't exactly how much [Miller's arrival] factors into things," said Truex, who drove at MWR while Miller was there. "In our case, this situation is kind of an odd one.
"It's not like we were trying to pull something over on somebody. ... People in the garage area talk and [Pearn] feels like, 'Do people really think I'm stupid enough after what happened at Daytona to try to pull something over on NASCAR in the same area?'"
NASCAR certainly appears willing to hand out points penalties. It issued 10-point penalties for the three Richard Childress Racing cars and one of its affiliates for adjustable mounts and another 10-point penalty to a JTG Daugherty Racing car with non-compliant rear wheel tub crush panels. NASCAR competition officials won't comment on penalties under appeal or before the appeal deadline.
"I don't think it's something where they sit down and say, 'Hey, we're going to send a message this week and penalize everybody who has an issue,'" Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler said. "They probably review it on a case-by-case basis and there probably were enough cases to warrant that [points penalty].
"That does send a message. But I don't think that was the agenda of going into the week."
Miller, a former crew chief at RCR and Michael Waltrip Racing, might just want to show he won't tolerate certain infractions. Issuing points penalties also could serve as NASCAR's attempt to intimidate the garage. It's no secret that NASCAR, with the new video officiating system it implemented in 2015, has cut the number of officials as it needs only about half of the officials for the actual running of a race. With the new inspection system that places more emphasis in the certification and postrace technical inspection at the NASCAR R&D Center, it requires fewer full-time officials at the track.
It would make sense, at least on the surface, that having fewer eyes in the garage means fewer illegal pieces get caught -- in other words, crime would naturally rise with fewer cops on the street. One way to try to make sure that teams don't try to take advantage of fewer officials, and in many cases new officials as part of the leadership transition, could come from handing down more severe penalties than in the past and hoping that will serve as a deterrent to a garage-gone-crazy atmosphere.
So what have teams learned after Daytona and Atlanta about the 2016 focus of the relatively new NASCAR leadership?
"Daytona is so separate and such a different animal that you can't really count much off of that, so we really have a sample set of one [race] here," Geisler said. "What they did penalize people for wasn't a big surprise. They're known items that you don't do.
"It's not a big shocker. It's probably the way this will go and we just all need to make sure we know how to operate within that."
Questions still remain. The car of Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kensethappeared to lose a piece of weight during the Daytona 500. NASCAR couldn't find any evidence it came from Kenseth or that his car had dropped weight. But then the next week at Atlanta, Kenseth was nailed for a pit-road penalty for the gas man putting a wrench on the decklid, something that his crew chief told Kenseth during the race the team had done in the past without penalty. NASCAR says it enforced the rule properly Sunday.
The drivers appear to want consistent, strict enforcement across the board. JGR driver Denny Hamlin said he has had really good interaction with Miller this year.
"There's always been such a huge gray area and the line says, 'You're allowed to go to here' and teams go a little more and nothing gets said," said Hamlin. "It's a good thing they're setting the tone early [with points penalties]."
Carl Edwards indicated that NASCAR's strict officiating distinguishes itself from racing at a weekly short track.
"It's good to get that stuff out of the way early in the season as NASCAR throws down the gauntlet -- as I say that I probably will end up with some sort of penalty," Edwards said. "Then we all know we are racing a fair race all year."
Kyle Busch learned at Atlanta.
The garage remains a tough place to officiate. Especially with new leadership, the lobbying and the jockeying and games would naturally escalate as teams test the resolve and acumen of new sets of eyes and a new judge with the gavel. NASCAR needs to try to keep the garage from being the Wild, Wild West (just like the on-track action).
If the first two weeks are any indication, it could be an interesting year of tug-of-war and plenty of sleepless nights -- on the road or at home -- for crew chiefs.
Pockrass: NASCAR competition police serve notice