That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday July 31, 2006
Last week, we looked at some of the ways that crews would get “creative” with the rulebook in the early days of NASCAR. In those days, a smart crew chief was almost always a step ahead of the sport. The sanctioning body in NASCAR did not have the technology that they have today to catch a small infraction, and often had to rely on both instinct and a well-timed “tip” from a well-meaning competitor to do their jobs successfully. These days, computers and advancements in technical knowledge and expertise by officials should turn the tables in the other direction…or have they? Has bending the rules in NASCAR really changed that much in recent times?
In certain ways, not really. A smart crew chief or engineer is still often a step ahead of NASCAR. Teams still interpret the rulebook to their own advantage. Sometimes, they just plain break the rules, and sometimes, NASCAR catches them. But sometimes…there isn't a thing the governing body can do.
In May of 1997, Jeff Gordon was working on his second championship season with crew chief Ray Evernham. They showed up at the All-Star race at Charlotte with a brand new, strange looking car nicknamed “T-Rex.” T-Rex was a “new design,” according to the team; well, Evernham and crew really outdid themselves with this one. Gordon smoked the field, winning easily, so NASCAR decided to take a closer look. They discovered that while unconventional, there was nothing actually illegal on the car, and there wasn't a rule against the design. So, before things could get out of hand (read: before Gordon won even more than he already was and the fans and other teams complained about it even more than they already were) NASCAR decided that if T-Rex had been legal before, it wasn't anymore. End of story, they thought. The car could sit in the Hendrick Motorsports museum as a reminder of what not to do.
Of course, that wasn't nearly the end of the creative engineering from the Nextel Cup garage area. That likely couldn't be stopped by doing anything less than taking away every toolbox from every mechanic. Although NASCAR might occasionally be caught one step behind, they have stepped up the game in inspection, particularly, it seems, in the round of inspections following qualifying.
Early in the 2005 season, Kevin Harvick qualified in the Top 10 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before officials noticed something: The filler tube (part of which is clear tubing) had been altered so that the fuel cell appeared full even though it held only enough fuel for the qualifying laps, making the car significantly lighter, and, therefore, giving it an aerodynamic advantage. Crew chief Todd Berrier was suspended for four races, Harvick and owner Richard Childress were docked 25 points apiece, and Harvick promptly went out and won at Bristol without Berrier.
Depsite having endured that punishment, the No. 29 team showed their willingness to push the envelope once again that Fall at Talladega. Officials inspecting the car after qualifying discovered that the rear shock absorbers were not sealed off properly, allowing air into the trunk area of the car, where a hole had been cut to allow the air to escape. That air underneath the car then counteracted the downforce from the spoiler, giving the team an aerodynamic advantage. This time, Berrier was reprimanded but no points were docked, because in this case, all the parts used were legal, integral parts of the racecar used in a manner that would artificially enhance performance.
NASCAR has stuck to both these precedents. In the Fall of 2005, Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch finished one-two at Dover. In postrace inspection, both cars measured too high. But under a rule that allows cars time to cool down and metal to contract, they were remeasured later – and both passed. The reason? Hendrick engineers had built rear shocks that were the opposite of the traditional shock package – they actually held the rear end of the car in the air, giving the car more downforce and, therefore, better grip. The shocks, although designed against conventional wisdom, were legal. One week later, they were not. These days, if a team gets one step ahead of NASCAR, NASCAR steps back alongside quickly.
The Daytona 500 rolled around this year, and although there is almost always a table full of confiscated parts by the end of the week, this time two teams bent the rules too far for NASCAR's liking, both in qualifying. Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96, driven by Terry Labonte, had an illegal carburetor, and the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson had the trackbar adjuster arranged so that an adjustment would also raise the rear window a fraction, taking air off the spoiler and making the car faster. Both cars had their qualifying times disallowed. Labonte's crew chief, Phillipe Lopez, was simply fined, and the No. 96 team lost driver and owner points. Meanwhile, the No. 48 team lost no points, but Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended for four races.
Why the discrepancy? Easy, according to NASCAR's latest policing policies. The 96 car's carburetor had a part that was illegal, and therefore its use was considered premeditated and deliberate by NASCAR, while all the parts on the 48 were legal parts, installed in such a way as they affected the car's handling. Using illegal parts, said NASCAR, warranted the point penalty, while the “creative” use of legal parts did not, although Knaus' suspension was intended as a deterrent. It turned out the penalty would not effect the team all that much anyways, as Johnson won the Daytona 500 in Februrary, and again at Las Vegas during the suspension.
In one last twist on the rule-bending of late, Robert Yates stated at Daytona that if one of his crew chiefs was caught being “creative” by NASCAR, he would fire that crew chief for his transgressions. Well, a few weeks later, the No. 88 of Dale Jarrett failed post-qualifying inspection at Richmond when the sway bar was mounted “for use other than anti-roll,” and crew chief Slugger Labbe was suspended for four races. But…he wasn't fired. The reason for the stiffness of NASCAR's penalty on that violation? The same sway bar mount configuration had been found a few weeks earlier on the No. 38 of Elliott Sadler, Jarrett's teammate at RYR, and the team was told not to do that again.
Racing – and winning – is big business. As long as the sport has been around, crews have bent the rules, interpreted the rules to their sole advantage, and employed “creative engineering” (NASCAR, other teams, and other teams' fans prefer the word “cheating”) to seek a competitive edge. NASCAR has always tried to keep up with these innovators, catching them when they can, all the while trying to deter their actions with stiff penalties. In the end, while cheating may be wrong on a certain level, both sides have usually done the right thing. Teams will always push the envelope, as they should, to raise the bar in competition. That's their job. In return, the sanctioning body will always catch some, miss others, and punish the ones they do catch to make sure the integrity of the sport is retained. That's their job. It's the nature of the game, one that has not really changed in almost 60 years of racing. And that's history.
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