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Understanding when and how NASCAR teams are penalized

In NASCAR, teams can be penalized in several ways over a given race weekend. The three main forms of penalties are pre-race, in-race and post-race.

Different types of NASCAR penalties

Pre-race penalties

Pre-race penalties typically stem from pre-race inspection for either the race or qualifying. If a driver’s car fails pre-race inspection twice, that car has to start at the rear of the field and vacate their starting spot during the pace laps prior to the field taking the green flag. Teams also see the car chief ejected following the second inspection failure — this was updated under NASCAR’s 2019 deterrence model as it had previously been a crew member.

A third inspection failure results in a pass-thru penalty on Lap 1 and that usually results in the driver falling a lap or two down depending on the track. Most inspection failures fall under the L1 penalty heading (more on that below).

In the case of events that hold qualifying, three inspection failures results in not being able to take a lap in the time trials. After two inspection failures for qualifying, teams lose their car chief and are assessed a practice hold of 15 minutes for the next event with practice.

In-race penalties

Almost all in-race penalties typically come on pit road. Teams can be penalized for a driver speeding entering or exiting pit road. Teams can be penalized for removing equipment such as the jack or gas can. Teams can be penalized for driving through too many pit stalls — the limit is three.

Teams can be penalized for loose equipment like a tire escaping the pit stall and ending up in the infield grass. Teams can also be penalized for having too many crew members over the wall — this usually happens after an accident — or for going over the wall too soon.

If these penalties occur under yellow, the penalty is a drop to the back of the field — the tail of the longest line. If these penalties occur under green, the penalty is a pass-thru down pit road that usually results in the driver being at least one lap down.

A black-flag penalty means the driver must return to pit road to fix some issue and will not be scored until the issue is resolved. 

Pit road is officiated from the Pit Road Officiating trailer in which the use of technology helps flag and confirm potential infractions during a race. 

In recent years, NASCAR has instituted a damaged vehicle policy and a six-minute crash clock. Under this policy, any cars with damage from an incident must be off pit road and making minimum speed in six minutes to continue in the race. Failure to do so will see the car retired from the race. 

Post-race penalties

Following a race, post-race inspection takes place and it is usually 90-120 minutes before the winner is confirmed. Cars come down pit road after the race for a lug-nut check. Crew chiefs are fined if a car is found to have one loose lug nut — in the NASCAR Cup Series that is a $10,000 fine. If a car has two loose lug nuts, the crew chief is fined $20,000 and suspended for one race. Lug-nut penalties fall under the safety penalty category as does the loss or separation of added ballast.

Cars go through post-race inspection and if a violation is found, it results in a race disqualification. That means the driver is scored last in the field and loses any stage points or playoff points earned from the race (had they scored any). The last time an apparent race winner in NASCAR’s top division was disqualified came on April 17, 1960, when Emanuel Zervakis’ victory at Wilson (N.C.) Speedway was thrown out because of an oversized fuel tank on his No. 85 Chevrolet.

Different levels of penalties in NASCAR

All Level 1 or Level 2 penalties found following at-track inspection result in points deductions, suspensions of crew chief and/or other team members and fines. The inspection of any vehicles in question in this case typically takes place at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina.

Level 2 penalties typically come in cases which disprove the likelihood that the violation resulted from an accident, omission or general misunderstanding of the NASCAR Rules. Violations resulting in Level 2 penalties also represent the expressly forbidden areas of unauthorized activity in or about the vehicle.

A L1 penalty

Carries a points deduction of 10 to 40 points, a suspension of the crew chief or other team members for one to three races and a fine ranging from $25,000 to $75,000.

A L2 penalty

Carries a minimum point deduction of 75 points, a suspension for the crew chief or other team members of six races and a fine anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. Penalties can be increased if the sanctioning body has found prior violations or determined a trend of a specific infraction recurring.

What constitutes a L1 or L2 penalty?

L1 penalties include a post-race failure to meet minimum weight, parts that are not properly installed or are made adjustable when not supposed to be, modifying chassis unless otherwise permitted, post-race body measurements outside of the tolerances permitted by the rule book and vehicles, equipment and/or parts failing to meet specifications.

L2 penalties include unauthorized engine performance enhancements such as nitrous oxide, modifying or altering the standard tires in any way other than authorized ways, violating the private team testing policy or wind tunnel testing policy — teams are allowed a set number of hours for this — and a failure to meet the engine seal requirements.

NASCAR can also issue behavioral penalties to its members for actions at the track, violations (such as failing a drug test) or actions on social media platforms.