Expect inspection to be a big topic (again) in 2018

When the Cup Series kicks off in just over two weeks and you start to hear the word “hawkeye” a lot, no, NASCAR officials haven’t suddenly become Iowa fans.

The h-word — actually spelled “Hawk-Eye” —  will be a popular one in NASCAR lexicon in 2018 as the sport transitions to a hopefully new and improved inspection system for vehicles. The new inspection system from Hawk-Eye, which has provided the technology for NASCAR’s pit road officiating cameras, is designed to be a more precise measuring system than NASCAR’s laser inspection station.

NASCAR’s laser inspection station, implemented in 2013, didn’t exactly have the best reputation among teams as they tried to search for every bit of legal speed within the ever-shrinking NASCAR rulebook. Some complained that two inspection runs would give two different readings to an unaltered car while there were also complaints that the angle of the sun could screw with the reliability of the station.

The LIS was also combined with big metal templates that wrapped around various parts of the cars to attempt to ensure their legality. Those templates are gone. The cars will be scanned with a combination of lasers and cameras.

“Yes, if the new Hawkeye system is put in place and implemented for 2018 fully — not partially — fully, it would certainly level the playing field for Ford by enforcing the rules,” Brad Keselowski said at preseason media day last week.

Keselowski was vocal throughout the 2017 season about his views that Toyota teams had an advantage over the rest of the field because of the new noses on their cars. After the final race of the season, where Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. beat Toyota driver Kyle Busch for the title, Keselowski said it “kind of felt like Formula 1” and that no one else had a shot for the title that season after seeing Toyota’s new car at the beginning of the year.

Truex and three drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing combined for 16 wins in 36 races a year ago including eight of the season’s 10 playoff races.

“I think everyone at Ford is fully endorsing the Hawkeye system to fully and properly police the cars’ aerodynamic capabilities,” Keselowski said. “That will level the cars to the submittal process. Basically when the cars are submitted to NASCAR they have to all have the same performance criteria but there has not been a system to enforce that that is what you actually race. To fully enforce that is what you actually race. The Hawkeye system is intended to fully enforce that.”

Chevrolet will have a new car in 2018. The Camaro made its on-track debut in the offseason at Texas with Chase Elliott behind the wheel.

NASCAR will institute a new inspection system in 2018 that’s designed to be more precise than the previous system. (Getty)
NASCAR will institute a new inspection system in 2018 that’s designed to be more precise than the previous system. (Getty)

“The way NASCAR is going to inspect cars is a little different with the body scan, so the tolerances are a lot tighter than they were last year. Everybody is going to have less downforce than they did last year just because of the new Hawkeye System just because of how they are teching the cars now.  It is a little bit of an unknown. We know the difference from where we were last year until now.  But, you just don’t know the difference for everybody else. Until we get to Atlanta, we aren’t going to have any idea.”

Ford is sticking with its current Fusion model. Keselowski has been far and away the most outspoken Ford driver about the team’s possible aerodynamic disadvantage.

“I think we’ll start the season and I think the Hawkeye system could maybe cut some deficit down for us that Toyota had built into their cars based off the old inspection system,” Roush (and Ford) driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “We’ll just see how it goes, but you’re not gonna really know exactly what you’ve got until we get the season rolling.”

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick said that teams have questions about how simple things in practice could affect a car’s next inspection run under the new system. Teams have gotten the opportunity to take cars outfitted to 2018 rules specifications to NASCAR and test run the cars through an inspection system at the sanctioning body’s headquarters. And some are — at a cost of $350,000 according to Ryan Newman — building inspection systems at their own shops. But those cars test inspected so far have obviously not been on the track.

“I think the part that is the most unique in this whole situation is what happens when the cars go on the racetrack,” Harvick said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And how do you — if it hits the racetrack and pushes the nose up and then it doesn’t fit in the front, what do you have to do to fix it. If the rockers or side skirts hit the ground and it pushes the door up or you have an incident where you scrub the wall in practice. Those are all of the things that we don’t know. And we don’t know how much the car’s going to move when it gets hot or cold.”

And it’s also important to remember that as teams search for all the speed they can get they’ve become adept at getting their cars to pass inspection while engineering those parts to provide a performance edge out on the track — an edge that inspection wouldn’t allow if the car was stationary.

Remember when NASCAR banned teams from swerving their cars on the cool-down lap after races during the 2016 season? That swerving was allegedly designed to help the rear of the cars get back into a legal position in time for post-race inspection.

There may also be some familiar growing pains with the new system too. It wouldn’t be surprising, at least early in the season at Atlanta and Las Vegas to see qualifying sessions plagued with cars failing to make an attempt as they struggle passing inspection.

That was a trend at intermediate tracks as teams tried to get through laser inspection with a car as quickly legal as possible. Eleven cars didn’t make a qualifying attempt in May at Kansas Speedway and nine missed out on a chance of qualifying at Texas in April.

When your 10, 15, 20 cars don’t make it out to qualify, it’s a black eye on our sport no matter how you look at it, and when it happens two or three or four out of five weeks, that’s horrible, and they let it happen,” Newman said last week. “I’m glad that they’ve tried to put an end to it, but we won’t know until we get eight, ten races into the season if they have.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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