Opinion: NASCAR mostly got it right with Johnny Sauter penalty

This likely won’t be a popular opinion, but NASCAR almost got it right with the Johnny Sauter penalty announced on Tuesday.

For those who missed what led us to this point, Sauter and Austin Hill have engaged in hard racing over the past two races that led to a series of on-track incidents on Sunday afternoon at Iowa Speedway. It culminated with Hill essentially dumping Sauter during the race, under green, and Sauter retaliating by sending his rival into the wall under caution a lap later.

What is lost in all of this is what happened in Texas the week prior to start the rivalry.

The history lesson is not to justify what Sauter did. In fact, his actions definitely warranted some kind of punitive response from the sanctioning body, and he got it: NASCAR suspended him for the upcoming event at Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday night.

You can even make the case that the penalty was too light given that his retaliatory actions came under yellow flag conditions, when safety trucks could have been placed in harm’s way.

This decision was always going to be complicated due to NASCAR’s win-and-you’re-in playoff format. The closest precedence to what Sauter did came in 2011 at Texas Motor Speedway when Cup Series moonlighter Kyle Busch intentionally crashed Truck Series championship contender Ron Hornaday following a similar on-track incident under racing conditions.

NASCAR suspended Busch for the remainder of that weekend, meaning that he was parked for the Xfinity Series and Cup Series races. It’s worth noting that Busch had already been all but eliminated from the Chase for the Championship that year.

And that’s kind of what this about right? The championship.

On paper, suspending Sauter meant that the 2016 champion would then be in violation of a NASCAR rule that requires a driver to start every race to be playoff eligible unless said driver receives a waiver.

These waivers are routinely issued for driers that miss the start of a season due to age restrictions or any number of races due to an injury.

But this is the first time that NASCAR has offered one for a suspension it issued due to an on-track behavioral issue — and that’s the most polarizing element of Tuesday’s penalty report.

That’s especially true given that Sauter received no additional penalties: no fines, no points penalty and nothing more than a weekend off with no further damage done to his season. That’s where NASCAR arguably should have done more.

NASCAR’s penalty as it stands seems too light, but ending his championship hopes in June would have seemed way too heavy.

The suspension in addition to a fine or a reduction of playoff points, therefore impacting his playoff chances would have sent a statement that it doesn’t tolerate such behavior.

NASCAR is caught between its roughneck roots which once all but encouraged this kind of behavior (through lightweight penalties) and its desire to be taken seriously as a legitimate major league sport on the same level as the NFL, MLB and NBA.

Tuesday’s action was pretty much a pivot back towards the NASCAR of old.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s penalties sent an implied message that it is OK to use race cars as weapons and to endanger safety workers. It didn’t have to be that way. NASCAR could have suspended Sauter and penalized him playoff points in addition to offering a waiver.

NASCAR almost got it right.

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