As the scramble to make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs intensifies, Michael McDowell‘s path just became significantly more difficult. On Tuesday, NASCAR announced McDowell’s #34 Front Row Motorsports team has been fined 100 points and ten playoff points for illegally modifying a vendor-supplied part. Crew chief Blake Harris has also been fined $100,000 and suspended for the next four races.
Many aspects of the Next Gen car are built using parts sourced from a single maker, such as Dallara constructing radiator ducts, McLaren with the digital dashboard, Five Star Race Car Bodies with much of the outer coverings, and BBS for wheels. Such components may not be modified with, and NASCAR is willing to go as far as to disqualify teams from making the playoffs for especially egregious violations (an L3 penalty; McDowell received an L2 penalty). The #6 RFK Racing of Brad Keselowski, a Ford like McDowell’s #34, suffered the same fate following the Atlanta race in March and fell from sixteenth to thirty-fifth in the standings, and his grueling efforts to climb back up since have only gained him seven spots.
The offending part was not revealed by NASCAR, though the penalty report notes the #34 violated Sections 14.1.C, D, and Q of the rulebook (“Overall Assembled Vehicle”) as well as Sections 14.5.A and B (“Modification of a single source supplied part”).
McDowell had been enjoying the best statistical season of his career, setting highs in top tens (eight), average finish (16.5), and laps led (thirty-eight) to firmly implant himself into the playoff hunt. With five races remaining in the regular season, he had been twentieth in points after notching a sixth-place finish at Pocono on Sunday. His car was taken to NASCAR’s Research & Development center following the event, as were the disqualified cars of winner Denny Hamlin and second-placed Kyle Busch who lost their finishes.
With the penalty, however, he sinks to twenty-seventh. While making the playoffs simply on points would have been an extremely tall order had he remained twentieth, the points deduction puts him in a must-win situation to qualify. Perhaps fortunately for McDowell, the next race is on Indianapolis Motor Speedway‘s road course, a track type that he excels on with a pair of top tens in the two most recent RC events at Sonoma and Road America.
UPDATE (27 July): FRM intends to appeal the penalty. A team statement released Wednesday proclaims, “Front Row Motorsports (FRM) continues to assess the penalties levied against the No. 34 NASCAR Cup Series team and the circumstances leading to the issues with the team’s car after the event in Pocono this past weekend. FRM has initiated the appeal process with NASCAR and will have no further comment until after the process has reached a conclusion.”