NASCAR Penalties Explained (Full Guide)

NASCAR, like all sports, has a dense rulebook covering all areas of racing, both on-track and off. The sport wants races to be decided in a fair and just manner, so numerous rules exist that the cars, drivers, and pit crews must abide by, and if they don’t they may receive a penalty.

NASCAR penalties work using a three-tier system to assure the Next Gen cars all comply to certain, precise specifications. The sport also penalizes teams and drivers for infractions committed on the track. The penalties are designed to limit part manipulation and increase safety.

There are many different types of penalties which carry different consequences. Penalties can be earned at any point during a race weekend. Below you will learn all the different types of violations in NASCAR and which ones carry the most severe ramifications.

How Do NASCAR Penalties Work?

There are different types of penalties that carry wide ranging consequences. These can be prerace penalties, postrace penalties, and penalties assessed during the race. Some may only affect track position for a portion of a race while others can have season long ramifications. It is important to understand how and why NASCAR inspects its cars before diving into the penalties earned by violations.

Prerace Technical Inspection

Each car entering a NASCAR race must first pass prerace inspection. This can happen before or after qualifying, but any resulting penalty remains essentially the same in either scenario. Teams are given two chances to pass inspection before penalties ensue. NASCAR allows multiple chances to pass because often failures occur not from malice but through human error or even temperature fluctuations.

The cars travel through scanning stations where NASCAR officials ensure everything from ride height to weight and everything in between complies to the rulebook. After one failure, teams attempt to remedy the issue and try again. If they fail a second time, a crew member is ejected. The offending team is also not allowed to qualify or has its qualifying time disallowed and must start at the back.

A third inspection failure results in the same penalties as a two-time failure plus the driver is forced to take a pass-through penalty down pit road at the start of the race. Any subsequent failures result in an even more severe L1 penalty, which we’ll discuss more below.

What Is An L1 Penalty In NASCAR?

An L1 penalty is the least severe tier of NASCAR penalties but they still carry major consequences. Violations at this level include the car failing to meet the minimum weight requirement, source parts failing to conform to NASCAR rules, and failure in the submission and approval process of parts.

There is a range of penalty options in each L-tier rather than an exact point or dollar amount. In the case of an L1 violation, penalties can result in a points deduction between 20 and 75 points, a playoff point deduction between 1 and 10 points, suspension of one crew member for between one and three races, and a fine between $25,000 and $100,000.

NASCAR officials examine the nature of these penalties and assign punishment accordingly. The ranges give officials leeway to penalize according to the offense rather than following a rigid, cut-and-dry penalty structure. Basically, the sport wants to make the punishment fit the crime and some violations are more severe than others, even within the same tier.

What Is An L2 Penalty In NASCAR?

An L2 penalty is the middle-tier penalty option, worse than L1 but not as severe as L3. Violations include modifications to single-source Next Gen parts, unapproved alterations to the engine control system wiring, violations of engine-seal requirements, and use of unapproved on-board electronics.

L2 penalties may result in points deductions, ranging between 75 and 120 regular season points or between 10 and 25 playoff points. One or two crew members may be suspended for L2 violations between four and six races, and monetary fines bump up somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000.

2022 Example

Brad Keselowski and the #6 RFK team served an L2 penalty after the March Atlanta race. Keselowski’s car was taken back to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center following the race where a single-source part was found to have been modified. Penalties rarely result from R&D visits – in part because not every car is inspected postrace – but NASCAR decided the violation warranted action.

The illegal part was a tail panel which had been used in three races and repaired by the team. NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 regular season points and ten playoff points, should he be able to overcome the penalty and still qualify for the postseason. RFK Racing also lost 100 owners’ points. Matt McCall, crew chief for Keselowski, was suspended for four races and fined $100,000.

The team filed an appeal, which was denied. After ten races in the 2022 season, the #6 team sat 29th in the standings and 111 points out of the playoffs, which shows you just how severe and impactful this penalty is for teams. Instead of being in close contention for a playoff spot, he was put in what was essentially must-win territory because of the penalty.

What Is An L3 Penalty In NASCAR?

L3 penalties are the highest-level infractions in NASCAR and carry the stiffest penalties. Violations include counterfeiting or modifying the single-source Next Gen parts, and a wide range of engine infractions and performance enhancements more severe than those addressed by L2.

Some of the engine and performance specifics covered by L3 are cubic-inch displacement, assembly and internal components, compression ratio irregularities, vacuum leaks, and use of nitrous oxide. Other infractions falling under the L3 umbrella are Engine Control Unit or Electronic Fuel Injection violations, violations of team testing policy and modifying tires or fuel.

L3 Consequences

Penalties at this level are harsh and could affect a team’s ability to qualify for and compete in the playoffs. L3 penalty options include a regular season points deduction between 120 and 180 points and a playoff point reduction between 25 and 50. One or two crew members will be suspended for six races, and fines range from $250,000 to $500,000.

Postseason eligibility can be nullified because of L3 penalties, regardless of wins or points earned over the season. In the case of repeated high-level violations by a single team, that team can be suspended for one race.

Other Kinds Of NASCAR Penalties

Much of what you have learned so far revolves around pre and postrace penalties, but there are also many ways teams and drivers can earn penalties for infractions during a race. Most of these are common occurrences which lead to diminished track position for drivers.

Unapproved Adjustments

Teams cannot make changes to their cars following final inspection. If they do, drivers must start the race at the rear of the field. Sometimes, teams will elect to take the penalty if they suspect something in the car is wrong or has the potential to be an issue later. They do this because starting the race at the back with a working car is less of a penalty than having to make mid-race repairs.

Pit Stop Issues

Many violations can occur during a pit-stop, and they can happen due to driver or crew error. Pit stop infractions most often result in the driver being forced to restart at the rear of the field if the penalty occurs under caution, or a pass-through penalty if the violation occurs under green flag conditions.

A pass-through penalty means drivers must travel back through pit road at the designated speed before rejoining the race, which leads to the loss of one lap at most tracks when served under a green flag.

Crew Errors On Pit Road

One common penalty is for a crew member coming over the wall too soon. NASCAR wants crew members to stay behind the wall and out of harm’s way as much as possible, so crew members must wait until the driver is pulling into the pit stall before jumping out. If they move early, the driver must come back through pit road.

Another mistake crew members make is losing control of tires during pit stops (as this can create danger in pit road or even on the track). Tire changers usually let go of the changed tire and send it toward the wall, where another crew member grabs it and lifts it over. But sometimes the tire takes a bad bounce and gets away from the crew, resulting in the same penalty.

Driver Errors On Pit Road

Drivers also can make errors on pit road. One such error is driving through too many pit stalls. Drivers cannot drive through more than three pit stalls on their way to their own and are penalized with a pass-through if they do. This is a more common occurrence during green flag pit stops than under caution because pit road is less congested under green.

Another recurring issue is removing equipment from the pit box. Often, this happens when the fueler is unable to remove the can from the car before it leaves the box. This could be the fueler’s fault or the driver’s if they leave before being told to.

Other, less common examples are jacks being caught under the car because the driver drove away prematurely, and adjustment tools being left in the rear of the car. All of these result in a pass-through or tail end of the line penalty. Although these happen often enough to be recognizable, the next example is the most common in-race penalty.

Pit Road Speeding

Each racetrack enforces a pit road speed for cars entering the area for service. The exact speed differs between each track – typically between 35 and 55 miles per hour. Speeds are measured by calculating distance traveled over time rather than radar testing a car’s speed at any given time. This is accomplished through computerized scoring sections along pit road which race officials monitor.

The penalty for speeding on pit road is a pass-through penalty. If the offense occurs under caution, the driver must restart at the tail end of the field. All these penalties adversely affect track position, but the ramifications are felt only during that race.

Passing Below Yellow Line At Superspeedways

Most NASCAR tracks have no out of bounds, meaning a driver can legally use every inch of the racing surface to make a pass. Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are the exceptions. These tracks have double yellow lines at the bottom of the track, and it is illegal to drive beneath them to make a pass.

NASCAR wants to avoid any added chaos at these tracks which already feature some of the sport’s most violent crashes, and this is one of its attempts to do so.

If a driver does pass in this manner, they must immediately give the spot they gained back or risk a black flag from NASCAR. A black flag means they will have to come down pit road and serve a pass-through penalty. Regan Smith had an apparent victory at Talladega in 2008 stripped away after he was ruled to have made an out-of-bounds pass on Tony Stewart on the last lap.

Restart Violations

There are two restart rules that sometimes cause issues and controversy in NASCAR. Picture a restart with the drivers lined up two-by-two. The driver in first is granted the privilege to be the first to accelerate at the green flag, meaning the driver lined up next to him must wait until the leader fires or time the start perfect and go simultaneously.

NASCAR must make a judgement call if the second-place driver beats the lead driver to the gas. NASCAR will place the restart under review and take everything into consideration before making the decision whether to penalize the second-place driver. If the leader spins his tires or makes another type of mistake, NASCAR may rule a clean restart. A guilty driver earns a pass-through penalty.

Changing lanes before the start-finish line is the sister rule in the restart rulebook. Drivers are not allowed to change lanes before reaching the line. This means they must stay in position, two-by-two, until crossing the line before making a pass attempt. Just like the leader rule, NASCAR reviews these before making penalties official. The penalty is also a trip through pit road.

Improperly Installed Wheels

NASCAR switched to a single, centered lug nut for the 2022 season, shifting away from the traditional five lug nuts. This has created some issues as teams adjust to a new style of pit stops. Six teams had wheels come off their cars during races early in the season.

Not only does this result in poor finishes because the car becomes temporarily disabled, but it also leads to penalties as well. The official terminology is an improperly installed wheel. This penalty carries a four-race suspension for the team’s crew chief and two additional crew members.

Being Parked For Bad Behavior

NASCAR officials often need to exercise judgement in analyzing on-track accidents and subsequent retaliations. Drivers are usually allowed to police themselves and handle perceived issues among each other without NASCAR interference.Rarely will an incident be so egregious that NASCAR will decide to park or suspend a driver, but a couple of notable exceptions have occurred.

Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked race leader Joey Logano late in the 2015 Martinsville playoff race. The two had recent history, with Logano spinning out Kenseth to win a race two weeks prior. Kenseth, running laps down following an accident, waited for Logano to get alongside him entering the corner and drove both cars into the fence.

NASCAR decided Kenseth’s action went above and beyond normal excusable aggression and suspended him for two races. Kyle Busch was guilty of a similar crime during a 2011 Texas Truck Series race. He intentionally wrecked championship contender Ron Hornaday, Jr. under caution and was suspended by NASCAR for the rest of the weekend, including for his primary job racing in the Cup Series.

Appealing Penalties In NASCAR

NASCAR issues penalties, but teams are allowed the opportunity to appeal some of these decisions. In the case of any of the L-tier penalties, teams can appeal NASCAR’s ruling to the National Motorsports Appeal Panel for further consideration. Some teams take the penalty without appeal depending on the circumstances surrounding the violation.

On-track penalties are appealed in a different way. Crew chiefs are sometimes seen arguing with NASCAR officials if they disagree with a penalty. These arguments rarely end in the penalty being overturned, but NASCAR will occasionally retract the penalty upon further review.

NASCAR gives drivers around five laps to pit upon receiving a penalty, and crew chiefs sometimes use every lap to argue a call before calling their driver in. The primary examples of on-track penalties being appealed are judgement related calls, such as a driver passing below the double yellow line or jumping a restart. There is no appealing equipment or speeding penalties. These are cut-and-dry.

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons NASCAR may penalize teams and drivers. Their consequences can be a minor nuisance or carry long-term fallout. Crews bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to ensuring their car remains within technical compliance, but drivers can also be penalized for on-track actions.

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