Millions of Americans woke up Sunday with a house full of Easter Eggs. You may have even been woken up at 5 A.M., by an excited seven-year-old kid who’d already found all the chocolate in the house and tried to eat it, as was the case with my aunt and uncle this year. But, no matter how early you found those eggs, your house wasn’t the first one the Easter Bunny came to visit. This year the rabbit came early, stopping by the world of stock cars to leave a box of goodies a team should have never received, and cementing the wrong reputation for a sport that didn’t stand tough at the right time.
Apparently, the boys over at Hendrick Motorsports had been extra nice to the rabbit fraternity in the past year, and boy did it pay off. At the beginning of the week, though, the group was facing an uncertain future. The winning car of Jimmie Johnson and the second-place car of Kurt Busch had failed post-race inspection two weeks earlier at Las Vegas, causing heavy fines and a loss of 25 Nextel Cup points for each team. The crew chiefs for the 48 and 5 cars, Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson, were facing the prospect of a two-race suspension just as the NASCAR world kicked into high gear, with seventeen straight weekends of Nextel Cup racing beginning at Bristol April 3rd. With such a long stretch ahead, it’s critical to get off to a solid start, and suspensions would put that in serious jeopardy. Two straight bad races with interim crew chiefs crumples up momentum and throws it in the trash bin, no matter what car owner’s name is on the side of your hauler.
Hendrick’s group had reason to worry, because these penalties were a chance for NASCAR to take a serious stand. Two cars owned by one of the most powerful teams in the business had chosen not to follow NASCAR’s rules. That’s right, I said chosen; it was clearly shown during the race by FOX that the fender of the 48 car had come undone during the race, and anyone could see by the car’s appearance that the front of the car just looked uneven. If you’re ready to argue my point, think about when the side window comes off a racecar during the event; NASCAR black flags the car, because it doesn’t have all the necessary parts and pieces to legally compete. While the loss of a wedge bolt didn’t result in a black flag in this case, it was still the equivalent of a piece coming off the car, and the team had plenty of opportunities to correct the part failure; it would take a matter of seconds to bolt in the fender on a pit stop. Instead, the 48 team chose the aerodynamic advantage, giving into fears of losing track position, and found itself having to accept the consequences of a failed inspection. And as for the 5, Busch’s car clearly had no clear altercation on the track that would cause a failure in post-race inspection. Call me crazy, but I have a hard time believing we’re dealing with innocent victims here.
Still, there was one road left for Hendrick before the suspensions were set in stone; the NASCAR appeal. All appeals of the sport are heard by three members of the National Stock Car Racing Commission, composed of names no race fan knows to the point they could be imaginary people. So, during the hearing in front of Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Dumbo the Elephant, neither team contested the fact the cars had failed post-race inspection. So, in a sense, they freely admitted a form of “cheating,” whether or not it was intentional. Why the argument then on appeal, you might ask? Well, basically they just asked for the sport to go a little light on them.
The evidence was inexplicably weighed over the next two days before a decision was reached, in the face of a clear opportunity to re-establish NASCAR as the one sport where playing outside the lines would not be tolerated. The harsh penalties could be a public relations snafu in the face of Major League Baseball, who has spent the past month of March trying to save face as it watched its ugly world of steroids become exposed on Capitol Hill, and one of its most respected players all but admit cheating during his record-breaking years. Unfortunately, NASCAR had already missed the boat as it was the first time; after years of letting drivers keep the win after taking the checkered flag with an illegal race car, stripping Johnson of the win on the initial penalty would have given instant credibility back to a sport that polices itself about as subjectively as your neighborhood cop gives out speeding tickets. Still, the suspensions of two NASCAR crew chiefs would send a clear message; cheaters WOULD be punished.
Unfortunately, the National Stock Car Racing Commission turned into the mom that doesn’t have the heart to discipline her children. Even though they agreed with all of NASCAR’s evidence, suspensions were removed; in their place, 90 days probation, which can be rewritten in English as ‘slap on the wrist.’ With one piece of paper, the Commission reduced the penalty to the same one Dale Earnhardt Jr. got for swearing in a television interview, only more money was involved in the fine.
That’s right, casual race fans; in the crazy world of NASCAR, saying the word *&^& in a public place will cost you the same number of points as altering your race car to win the race. And we haven’t even talked about the other appeal for Kevin Harvick’s team, whose crew chief is in trouble after the car tried to cheat during qualifying! When the car already was guaranteed a spot in the field! Still, we’re all supposed to think things have all become OK because Mike Helton held a “harsh” drivers’ meeting last Sunday in Atlanta in which he said cheating will no longer be tolerated. Poor Helton; I’m not sure after all his “warnings” people refer to him as anything other than the Boy Who Cried Wolf. And the kicker is, after next Sunday someone’s going to bang into somebody else at Bristol, tempers will flare, and there’ll be a new controversy, throwing this important issue under the rug until the next time someone decides they need to beat the system.
I hate to say it, but I have a good idea when that next “cheater’s” race might be. I’m the team in 11th place, 5 points out of 10th heading into the Chase Race at Richmond. I know from the precedent NASCAR’s set that no matter what I do, I lose 25 points (Quick, name the last time a NASCAR team lost more than 25 points in a race. Answer: Not in this century!) The difference between making the Chase and being left out means millions in publicity, points money, and sponsorship. Why wouldn’t I cheat? A win would be equivalent to a third-or-fourth place finish, and I’d guarantee myself one with a souped-up race car; the fine and the 25 points would be peanuts in the grand scheme of things. It’s the same reasons baseball players took steroids; the pressure to succeed and the fame and fortune achieved with that success made cheating worth the toll the drug was taking on their bodies, as well as their pride.
And so, we end another Easter with the officiating side of this sport more confusing then ever before, and with an illegal race car keeping its place atop the record books. Stock car racing keeps trying to market itself as different from all the other major sports; yet why do their decisions keep tilting further and further in the same direction? In baseball, it’s all about what cheaters don’t have to say. In NASCAR, it’s all about what cheaters don’t have to do. And the only one that loses, race fans, is you.
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