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Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

Moving violations

     DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Burton asked for a reporter’s pen and notepad, determined to illustrate the difference between cheating and an innocent mechanical error. The race driver’s drawing was crude but effective in helping him make his point.

     The fact that he had to go to such lengths says volumes about the main topic of SpeedWeeks 2007: cheating.

     NASCAR’s crackdown on violations large and small has overshadowed the kickoff of a new season with its premier event, the Daytona 500.

     The stellar performance thus far of former Formula One ace Juan Pablo Montoya has been relegated to the back burner, and rather than being able to celebrate its arrival in NASCAR’s top division, Toyota has been embarrassed by a blatant transgression on the part of Michael Waltrip Racing.

     On one hand, NASCAR is cracking down tighter than ever on those who stray from the rules. On the other, as a result of its actions, NASCAR is being buried in negative publicity. Media outlets worldwide have been portraying NASCAR as overseer of a sport where cheaters are the rule, not the exception.

Outside the lines

     Bending the rules, if not blatantly breaking them, is as old as NASCAR. Glenn Dunnaway of Gastonia, N.C., was flagged as the winner of NASCAR’s first race, held June 9, 1949, at a dirt track in neighboring Charlotte. After the race, rear springs that weren’t stock – and Strictly Stock was the forerunner of today’s Nextel Cup division – were discovered under his ’47 Ford and Dunnaway was disqualified.

     This week’s infractions, involving six teams, are the latest chapter in that legacy. The first batch of violations came before and after qualifying Sunday.

     Roush Racing and Evernham Motorsports were each penalized 50 points, $50,000 and loss of a crew chief for a month’s worth of races because vent holes in the rear wheels weren’t blocked off as required during qualifying.

The other two Evernham crew chiefs were suspended for two weeks and the team and driver docked 25 points because of holes drilled in bolts that mount the rear spoiler to the trunk lid.

     Those infractions were minor compared to the one committed by team of owner-driver Michael Waltrip. Someone on his crew introduced a horsepower-boosting substance into the fuel system of Waltrip’s Toyota, and NASCAR held crew chief David Hyder and the team’s competition director, Bobby Kennedy, responsible. Both were ejected from today’s race and suspended indefinitely, and Hyder was socked with a NASCAR-record $100,000 fine.

     NASCAR also confiscated Waltrip’s car to boot, and all of that was fine by Burton: “When someone steps out of the bounds, whack them.”

     Waltrip has no problem with a stricter enforcement of the rules, either.

     “What we did was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” Waltrip said Thursday after putting a back-up car into today’s race. “I still haven’t got anybody to fess up to doing it.”

Punishments grow

     Not long after Waltrip made his comments, four-time champion Jeff Gordon won a qualifying race, and its reward was the fourth spot in the Daytona 500 starting lineup. But Gordon’s car didn’t pass inspection. The teeth on a brace that hold a shock absorber in place hadn’t meshed properly when the part was installed, resulting in a fender drooping by “about an inch, more or less,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.

Pemberton judged it to be an installation error rather than an attempt to skirt the rules. Still, the car wasn’t up to spec at post-race inspection, and NASCAR sent Gordon to the back of the field for today’s race with no further penalty. As is normal, NASCAR put the pieces on display at its hauler for all to see, and once Burton got a look at them, he was satisfied with NASCAR’s comparative wrist slap of Gordon.

     Mark Martin is another veteran driver who applauds the ramped-up demand for compliance by the sanctioning body.

     “I don’t think 25 points got anybody’s attention. People hated to lose them but stepping it up will get their attention,” Martin said. “There is no amount of money that will get their attention because there is so much at stake in this business. When you starting taking 50 points, that really takes their attention. A hundred points sent the message home.”

All publicity isn’t good

     It was harsh message Toyota certainly hadn’t expected to have to deal with as it expands its NASCAR involvement from the Craftsman Truck ranks and into Nextel Cup and Busch series.

     “We certainly hope we’ve partnered with the right people to hold their people to a high standard,” said Lee White, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Toyota’s racing efforts in the United States.

     Cheating could have a backlash on car sales, which is the reason Toyota, General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler spend tens of millions of dollars a year in NASCAR racing.

     “Anything that would be contrary to that – like cheating or if we had a Dodge driver who was the biggest jerk on the track and he was cutting people off all the time and knocking people out of the race – that would have a negative image on our brand and that would eventually turn some of our customers off,” said Mike Accavitti, who heads up Dodge Motorsports.

     “There used to be a saying that there’s no such thing as bad P.R. Yeah, there is – we saw it this week.”

     Gordon hopes NASCAR’s crackdown has had the desired effect and that the worst is behind the sport for the immediate future.

     “Hey, as long as this sport has been around and as long as it continues to be around, people are going to push the gray areas. Sometimes they’re going to push it too far, and they’re going to get penalized,” he said.

     “I’m hoping we can get this behind us and we can go into (today’s) race and we have an exciting race, and the cars go through inspection with no issues.”