2021 Penalties

2021 penalties were down, but let’s take a deep dive into how and why, including how the change in schedule impacted penalties.

Penalties in Recent History

NASCAR handed out 317 in-race penalties in 2021. That’s a little down from last year’s 337 penalties, but continues the downward trend from 2018, when we had 393 penalties.

As I’ve done in the past, I’ve split the 2021 penalties into driver mistakes and crew mistakes. This year, I had four penalties that had to do with drivers being called to pit road to repair their cars. That didn’t really seem like anyone’s fault, so I put them into an ‘other’ category.

Driver penalties are the typical driver errors: speeding on pit road, missing the commitment line,etc. Crew penalties are too many crew over the wall, or over the wall too soon.

2021 Penalties shown in a bar graph for comparison against penalties from 2017-2020

Drivers are pretty predictable when it comes to penalties: You can count on about 200 driver-incurred in-race penalties each year. The reason for the overall decrease is that crew penalties are down by almost by a factor of 2 since 2018, from 199 to 109. Electronic officiating started back in 2015, so that’s not a factor here. I suspect the decrease is because competition is tight and penalties are costly, so a crew member who makes too many mistakes quickly finds him/herself out of the a job.

Drivers were responsible for just about 2/3 of all penalties, and the crew 1/3. Last year, drivers were responsible for 59%.

2021 Penalties: Driver-Incurred

The biggest driver penalty is (as usual) speeding on pit road, but this penalty comprised a much smaller fraction of driver-incurred penalties than in previous years. In most recent years, speeding on pit road made up 80% of all driver-incurred penalties, but this year, they were only 70% of the 204 total driver penalties.

2021 Penalties incurred by drivers, shown in a pie chart as a percent of total penalties

That difference is because of the six road courses on the schedule this year: 11.3% of all penalties relate to missing chicanes or bus stops. That wasn’t such a problem when there were only two road courses on the schedule.

Commitment-line violations were about the same percentage as last year.

2021 Penalties: Crew-Incurred

Crew members incurred 109 penalties, with the two biggest offenses (crew members over the wall too soon and tire violations) making up a little less than 50%. In third place is too many crew members over the wall.

2021 Penalties incurred by crew, shown in a pie chart as a percent of total penalties
I included not meeting/maintaining minimum speed as a crew error because it seemed unfair to blame that on the driver. Maybe it should be ‘other’, but there was only one citation, so it’s not a big deal.

There’s a little bit of a shuffle among the top three components, but together, they accounted for about 68% of all penalties. That’s down from 75% of all penalties last year.

Who Got Penalized?

The graph below shows the number of penalties incurred by all drivers who ran at least 25 races and their crews.

2021 penalties incurred during races, broken down by driver in a vertical bar chart
NOTE: I had to correct this chart. A sharp-eyed reader noted that two drivers were on the graph twice each.
  • Cody Ware’s team held the record this year with 14 penalties, and they did that running only 32 races. Normalizing that to a full-season 36 races, that would have been almost 16 penalties — which was the number last year’s most-penalized teams (Houff, Hill, LaJoie, Newman) incurred.
  • The 00 Houff team moves down to second, tied with the Suarez and Bilicki teams.
  • Among championship contenders, the top penalty incurrers were Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson with 8 penalties each. Hamlin’s team only had six penalties last year.

Although we’re focused on penalties, let’s put these 317 violations in perspective. According to my count, there were about 8,568 pit stops in 2021. Of the 317 penalties, 296 happened on pit road. That means teams pulled off 8,272 by-the-books pitstops in 2021. Only 3.45% of the pitstops drew a penalty.

Driver vs Crew Penalties Revisited

Let’s separate out this data into driver and crew. Here’s the same plot as above, but this time, I’ve broken it down into driver/crew and other errors. Also, I’ve ordered it in rank of driver-incurred penalties.

A vertical bar chart that again shows penalties by driver, but this time, breaks them down into those incurred by the driver and those incurred by the crew
  • Plotting it this way doesn’t help Mr. Ware, who leads with 10 driver-incurred penalties
  • Bubba Wallace, Chastain and McDowell each had 9 driver-incurred penalties
  • Houff and Briscoe each had 8
  • The highest championship contender in driver penalties is Denny Hamlin, with 7.
  • Kyle Busch and Larson each had 6 driver penalties.
  • Truex, Jr. — who has had issues with lots of penalties in the past — is way down this year with only 2.
  • Keselowski didn’t have a single driver-incurred penalty

Focusing on crews:

  • Aric Almirola’s crew made the most mistakes on pit road with 7
  • Smithley, Bilicki, Suarez’s pit crews each had 6
  • Austin Dillon, Lajoie, Elliott, Stenhouse, Jr., and Truex, Jr.’s crews made no pit road errors in 2021.

In terms of the crews, you expect the lower-level teams who can’t afford high-priced pit magicians to have more penalties. So it’s extra strange that a SHR crew would make the most errors.

Where Penalties were Incurred

The impact of road courses on driver penalties can be seen more clearly if we look at the penalties by race.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing penalties by race and type.
  • Drivers seemed to have a particularly difficult time at the Charlotte Roval, which took the record for penalties with 29 total, 18 of which were for missed chicanes. That’s almost 9% of total driver penalties right there.
  • After the Roval, the next most-penalized race with the Fall Richmond race
  • Drivers had a lot of problems with speeding on pit road at Martinsville which, because it is curved, makes it one of the most difficult pit roads to traverse.
    • They also had problems with speeding at Richmond, Phoenix, Kansas, Dover and Nashville
  • The most tire violations of the year happened at the spring Kansas race

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