NASCAR by the Numbers 2020: Penalties

Penalties can make or break a driver’s race — or season — so here’s a look at all the penalties assessed in 2020, who got them and when. We’ll investigate all three types of penalties: pre-race (aka ‘to the back’), in-race and post-race. I have not included disciplinary penalties in this analysis.

Pre-Race

In 2020, the driver had many fewer chances to be responsible for starting in the back. That’s because we had fewer practices and qualifying sessions in which to crash the primary car and have to go to a backup. But there were still 126 cars (46 drivers) sent to the back before a race.

Reasons for To The Back

There were 14 different reasons cited by NASCAR, but I condensed them down into a smaller number of broad categories to make it easier to see the trends.

A pie chart showing the different reasons drivers were sent to the back in the 2020 season because of pre-race penalties
  • The largest fraction of ‘to the back’ penalties came from failing inspection — almost about a third of all penalties
    • 90% of those who failed inspection failed twice
    • 7.5% (3 penalties total) were for failing three times
    • 1 car failed inspection five times. (You know who you are.)
    • No one failed inspection four times.
  • Unapproved adjustments came in distant second, at about 20% of all penalties
  • 13.5% of the penalties were because the team had to go to a backup car.
    • This one surprised me because we didn’t have that many practices this year. But we did have doubleheaders.
      • Nine cars went to backups for the second Michigan race because of accidents in the first race
      • Three did the same for Pocono and two at Dover
    • Only 2 of the cars that needed backups happened pre-COVID.

Who Got Sent to the Back

46 drivers out of the 54 drivers who drove at least one race this year got send to the back at least once.

I limited the graph below to drivers who drove 32 or more races to keep the graphs clean without eliminating drivers like Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon, who misses races this year. I starred the top four drivers in the season-ending ranking.

A column chart showing which drivers were sent to the back for pre-race penalties in 2020

Unsurprisingly, underfunded teams started in the back much more frequently than well-funded teams. But among those well-funded teams…

  • Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch both started from the back four times.
    • Dillon got sent back once for failing inspection, twice for unapproved adjustments and once for a backup car
    • Kurt Busch had three failed inspections and a backup car
  • Series Champion Chase Elliott went to the back three times — including for the last race of the year. Twice was for failing inspection and the third was because they had to change a transmission.
  • No Penske car got sent to the back more than twice. Keselowski and Logano each only had one start from the back.

Impact of Pre-Race Penalties

Starting in the back isn’t that much of a handicap most of the time. A lot of the cars sent to the back would’ve started there anyways. The good cars have plenty of time to get to the front.

Pushing the car as close to the line set by the rules is necessary to be competitive. Failing inspection twice might be seen as an acceptable risk — but teams rarely fail inspection more than twice. NASCAR seems to have succeeded in getting teams to take getting through inspection seriously.

But there’s a psychological impact in being sent to the back. If your driver is more pessimist than optimist, starting from the back might give the crew chief a little more of a challenge. And, of course, there’s always the possibility there’s an early wreck back there and you get caught up in it.

In-Race Errors

These are the ones that can really hurt, especially if they happen late in the race. As I’ve done in the past, I’ve broken in-race penalties down into those incurred by the driver and those incurred by the crew.

I put any penalties that couldn’t be directly tied to the driver on the crew. That might be a little unfair; however, those types of penalties make up a very small portion of the total of 33 penalties NASCAR handed out during races in 2020.

A History of Penalties

NASCAR assessed 337 in-race penalties during the 2020 season. Every full-time (or near full-time) car got at least one.

A column chart showing the number of penalties from 2017 - 2020 broken down by driver and crew responsibility

Penalties are down for the third time in as many years, but they’re still well above 2017. The drivers have held constant around 190-200 penalties per year for the last few years, but the crew numbers have changed, going up in 2018, then down each subsequent year.

A column chart showing the percentage breakdown of in-race penalties between driver and crew

The crew responsibility jumped from 33.6% in 2017 to 50.6% of all penalties in 2018, but they’ve been bringing that percentage down over the last few years. This year’s rate of 41.4% penalties attributable to crew is the lowest percentage since 2017. So even though the driver penalties haven’t really changed in absolute numbers, they are responsible for a bigger share of the penalties.

That’s even more impressive because there are seven or eight crew members for each driver. (I’m counting the spotter and crew chief and engineers as well as pit crew). You might argue that the pit crew has fewer opportunities to commit errors, but drivers make 95% of their mistakes on pit road.

Crew Penalties

You can see all the different penalties I gave the crew credit for in the pie chart below.

A pie chart showing all crew penalties for the 2020 season
  • The biggest violation, at almost 30%, is over the wall too soon.
    • Last year, OTW too soon accounted for only 18% of all crew penalties
  • If you include equipment and crew member over the wall too soon, that accounts for about 35% of all penalties
  • Tire violations were a little more than a quarter of all crew penalties in 2020
    • This is way down from last year, where tire violations were 40% of all violations. That’s not too surprising given NASCAR backed off their overly strict interpretation of what constitutes an ‘uncontrolled tire’
  • Third in 2020, with 20%, is too many men over the wall.
    • In 2019, too many men over the wall constituted 35% of all the penalties
    • It seems like they switched too many men over the wall with over the wall too soon between last year and this year
  • Together, the top three penalties make up 75% of all the penalties incurred by the crew.
  • Notably, safety violations were down from 10% last year to 3.7% this year.

Driver Penalties

As margins of victories decrease, getting position during pit stops becomes increasingly important. So it won’t surprise you that speeding on pit road is the number one driver penalty.

A pie chart showing all driver penalties for the 2020 season
  • No surprises here. Almost 80% of driver penalties are speeding on pit road. That’s right about what it was last year.
  • The second-most frequent penalty hardly comes close with 6.9% for commitment-line violations.
  • We’ve got a new violation this year: running over the choose box during restarts.
  • As the number of road courses increases, expect the number of missed chicanes and bus stops to increase.

Who’s Getting Penalized?

The graph below shows you driver/crew penalties and green/yellow flag. But first, let’s just look at the overall number.

  • Ryan Newman, Timmy Hill, Quin Houff and Corey Lajoie tie for the most in-race penalties at 16 each. Together, these four drivers account for 17.5% of all in-race penalties in 2020.
    • One tie breaker here is number of races run. After his accident in the Daytona 500, Newman only ran a total of 33 races, whereas the others ran 36. So Newman takes the prize on this one.
    • Another thing we might look at among out top four penalty getters is who made those errors.
      • In Newman’s case, it was overwhelmingly (11 to 5) him.
      • Quin Houff was 13 to 3 and Corey Lajoie was 9 to 7.
      • Timmy Hill was the only one with fewer penalties than his crew: 6 for him and 10 for them.
  • Corey Lajoie was also the top most-penalized driver last year, with 19 penalties. Although he’s still at the top of the list, he’s down this year relative to last.
  • Austin Dillon is a surprise to see this high on the list with 12.
  • Bubba Wallace, last year’s second-most penalized driver (16 penalties), was down this year to 7.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. has been at the top of the in-race error lists for the last two years. He’s down to mid-pack this year with only six errors relative to 15 last year.
    • In 2018, MTJ made 1 mistake and his crew 15. This year, the total is down and the crew’s fraction is down.
  • If you’re looking for penalties to explain Kyle Busch’s year, don’t. He had four this year, relative to 10 last year.

The low-penalty teams are on the left side of the chart

  • Harvick made zero mistakes and his crew only made only one for the entire season. Last year, that team had five errors.
  • Kurt Busch , Keselowski and Bowman each had only three penalties.
    • Kurt Busch only made one error himself in 2020
    • Bowman is the only driver who didn’t incur a penalty himself. All his penalties were the crwe
    • Keselowski, on the other hand, accounted for all three of his penalties, with his crew error free. Last year, Keselowski made no in-race mistakes that warranted penalties.

Most Green-Flag Penalties

If we re-sort this data, we can tell who’s making the most penalties under the green flag — which holds stiffer consequences than erring under yellow.

  • Surprisingly, one of our top four contenders ties for #1 in green-flag errors during races with four penalties.
    • Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. each had three driver penalties under green and one crew penalty.
    • Two of Logano’s penalties came with 13 or fewer laps left in the race. One came with only two laps left.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, let’s give kudos again to Harvick, along with Bowman, Kurt Busch, Custer, Elliott, Hamlin and Reddick, each of whom had NO green-flag penalties

Crew vs. Driver by Team

And let’s do one more sort, on driver vs. crew penalties and ignore what color the flag was. The number of driver errors increases toward the right.

A column chart that emphasizes the number of driver penalties for the 2020 season.

A lot of the same suspects stand out, but there’s some new information.

  • Austin Dillon made nine of his team’s twelve penalties himself. The team made only three
  • Matt Kenseth seems to have had a hard time shaking off the rust coming back to the track after time off. His crew only got one penalty, while he got seven.
  • Denny Hamlin always seems to be in the upper half of driver errors. Is that the thing he needs to change to get that elusive championship? He’s the top error committer(?) of the championship contenders.
  • Wallace, Suarez and Lajoie all ran for underfunded teams, but the team they move to for next year should be on the lookout for places to gain an edge by cutting driver penalties.

When In-Race Penalties Happened

I looked at how close to race- or stage-end penalties took place. If you get penalized at the start of a race, there’s time to overcome it. But if it happens late in a stage (or near the end of the race), you may not have time to overcome it.

The chart below shows the percentage of penalties each team got in each stage, plus overtime. I ordered them in terms of stage, so you want to see your driver’s name as far right as possible.

A column chart showing the percentage of penalties incurred in each of the stages and overtime
  • The #3 team not only got 12 dings, 9 of them where in stage 3.
  • Of the championship contenders, Keselowski had the most stage-3 mistakes, at 65%. His team historically doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but if you’re going to make them, you want to make them early.
  • Harvick, Almirola and Bowman didn’t have have a single penalty in stage 3

It’s also worth noting that where in the stage it happens matters

  • Chase Elliott never had a penalty within 50 laps of a stage- or race-end.
  • Joey Logano had almost 60% of his penalties in stage 3
    • One error was one lap from the end of a race
    • Another was two laps from the end of a stage
  • Although Hamlin only had about 30% of his penalties in stage 3,
    • One penalty came five laps from race end
    • Another penalty came fix lap from race end.

Penalty Deep Dive

Here’s all a whole bunch of data in one glimpse. I again combined the penalty categories into a smaller number and learned how to make a legitimate heat map.

Heat maps showing the driver and crew penalties for 2020

The key is on the right of each map. The ‘hotter’ the color (white is the hottest color in this scheme), the more errors. You can immediately compare your driver and your crew to other drivers.

You can see, for instance, that Erik Jones was really good about not speeding, but had other problems on pit road. If you’re his new crew chief, you might want to push him to take more chances on pit road with his speed, while working with him to eliminate the other errors.

So if you’re fantasy racing next year, this is a good summary to keep in mind when you’re picking teams.

Post-Race Penalties

Finally, we come to the penalties after the race. These are usually just loose lug nuts, but they’re sometimes a little more serious than that.

a column chart showing which cars were assessed post-race penalties in the 2020 season
  • The only two post-race admonitions that weren’t lugnuts this year were the 11-car’s ballast issue and the 48 being disqualified.
  • The 11 car had the largest number of post-race penalties with 6. The 4 and 19 were second, each with five.
  • The 14 got two two-lug loose penalties this year, the only car to do so

So there you’ve got it: Our yearly summary of NASCAR penalties. If you’re looking for driver strengths and weaknesses, here they are.

Thank you, as always, to my data sources: racing-reference.info and Jayski.

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About Diandra 451 Articles
I'm a recovering academic who writes about the intersection of science and life. I'm interested in AI, advanced prosthetics, robots and anything that goes fast. Author, THE PHYSICS OF NASCAR and Editor, BIOMEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY

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