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THIRD PLACE
David Poole, Charlotte Observer


Integrity Questions Haunting NASCAR


Fixed.

It might be the most sinister word in sports. The notion that the outcome is somehow determined before an event begins draws the line between where competition ends and performance begins.

In the NASCAR vernacular, a race is known as "the show." If that's all it is, doesn't that make everybody who'll be at Lowe's Motor Speedway for today's 600 - everybody on the track, in the garage and in the grandstands who's not "in" on the gimmick - a sucker?

"If somebody was really manipulating this sport, you'd be mad as hell," said Steve Hmiel, a former Nextel Cup crew chief who is technical director at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"You've worked your whole life to be competitive. So I don't think anybody is rigging anything, and I don't think any of us are suckers."

That position, frankly, has taken a pummeling in recent weeks.

"I don't know that they've run a fair race all year," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said after being upset by cautions for debris at the Phoenix race last month. "It's like playing God. They can almost dictate the race. I guess that NASCAR thinks, 'Hey, wrestling worked and it was, for the most part, staged. So I guess it's going to work in racing, too.' "

Stewart retracted the gist of that diatribe, but he couldn't pull back the impact of what he said. But he has not been alone in questioning NASCAR's officiating fairness.

At Darlington, S.C., two weeks ago, Denny Hamlin was trying to chase down leader Jeff Gordon in the final laps of the Dodge Avenger 500 when he thought he'd caught a break.

"There was somebody's entire fender and underbody on the race track," Hamlin said. "I saw that and I literally pumped my fists in the car because I knew a caution was going to come out. But no caution and Hendrick (Motorsports) gets another break."

Two weeks before that, some fans howled because they believed NASCAR waited to throw a caution flag at Talladega, Ala., to benefit Gordon again. As Gordon was challenging for the lead late, David Reutimann's car began smoking. Just after Gordon made his pass for the lead, the caution waved. Gordon went on to win.

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Issue isn't new

Last week, several hundred fans who follow the sport closely enough to join the official "NASCAR members club" traveled here for an annual convention.

A panel of racing media discussed the sport at one gathering of that group, and fans were asked to raise their hands if they believed NASCAR manipulates competition through officiating. More than a third of the people raised their hands.

The issue is not new.

Since the sport's first race here in Charlotte in 1949, stories have been told about inspectors allowing obviously illegal cars to roll through while "finding" violations on other cars that had come to disfavor with NASCAR.

The Nextel Cup rule book is popularly viewed as a document written only in pencil - or, as in an old joke, on an Etch-A-Sketch.

There has always, in fact, been plenty of smoke when it comes to the issue of NASCAR manipulating events. The real question, though, is whether there's actual fire.

"Lately, when it comes to conspiracy theories the John F. Kennedy assassination is No. 1 and we're No. 2," said team owner Ray Evernham, a former crew chief. "Everybody's got a conspiracy theory, but there's just not that big of a conspiracy going on."

Driver Jeff Burton agrees.

"The thing that drives me kind of crazy is any belief by teams or fans that NASCAR does something to help a particular team," Burton said. "I don't believe they'd throw a caution so Jeff Gordon could win Phoenix. It worked out that the No. 24 car got lucky. It wasn't NASCAR's fault.

"I don't think they'd throw a caution so the Lowe's car could win a race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. I think that's ludicrous. If I ever believe that it's like that, I'd quit. It's NASCAR's responsibility and the charge to look into the overall good of the sport. And I think they do a damn good job of that."

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Endless conspiracy theories

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said he knows there's no way to convince a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan that Gordon gets all the calls or a Gordon fan that the sport doesn't do everything possible to assist Earnhardt Jr.

"I know what we do, but I know you can't stop people from having these endless conspiracy theories," France said. "There are a lot of things going on in a given race. Sometimes a caution helps some drivers and sometimes it hurts some.

"Our problem is if something happens. A piece of metal could be a piece of paper, but if it's metal and we don't do anything about that, somebody could run it over it. If that causes an accident or it goes up into the stands - any number of things - that's not a good outcome for us.

"We're going to err on the side of putting the caution out if we think there's a safety element. But that can be difficult. Is it in the groove or out of the groove? What is it?"

Hmiel was crew chief for Mark Martin in 1990 when NASCAR docked the team 46 points for an unapproved spacer on the carburetor at Richmond, Va. The team contended the part created no advantage. That year, Martin lost the championship by 26 points to Dale Earnhardt, and Hmiel and car owner Jack Roush still believe that penalty cost them the title.

"I've been on the good side of it and the bad side of it," Hmiel said of NASCAR officiating.

" But in 35 years, I've never been able to go, 'Well, that's what happened. This guy told me this when it all went down and it's a crooked deal.' Never.

" I am not flying the NASCAR flag, I am just telling you that if you ask me if I've ever seen anything really bad go down the answer is absolutely not. I've never felt like I've been up against a stacked deck."

When he was crew chief for Gordon, Evernham got a $60,000 fine for a rules infraction that was, until two $100,000 penalties this year, the largest in NASCAR history.

"I think that's something unfair that has been part of the folklore of NASCAR," Evernham said of hints of favoritism. "The bottom line is you have a balls-and-strikes deal.

" I will complain as much as anybody else when I am upset. But I cannot stand here and tell you that I have ever, ever felt that NASCAR has tried to dictate who won a race or who didn't."

NASCAR inspections are open. At several tracks, fans can sit in bleachers and watch cars roll through pre-race inspections. Illegal parts are confiscated and usually put on display at the NASCAR hauler.

"We're the most transparent in all of motorsports without even a question," France said. "We have an open inspection process, and when an illegal part we usually put that out for everybody to see. We have drivers who come up the control tower and see the complexities we're up against and how it really happens and how the decisions are made. I don't know how much more transparent we could be."

John Darby, as Nextel Cup Series director, is the chief over the dozens of inspectors and rules officials. He's also part of a team that includes NASCAR President Mike Helton, vice president for competition Robin Pemberton, race director David Hoots and a legion of spotters and officials around the track who decide when cautions should be called.

Darby said when he's watching a football game on television he finds himself "chewing on a referee because I think he missed a call on my team."

Darby knows NASCAR doesn't get it right all of the time, either. The sport's mantra is they will always err on the side of caution.

"I think certainly there are probably times during a race where the field gets strung out and maybe they're looking a little harder for debris than other times," driver Matt Kenseth said.

" We've got to realize that it's a sport. I think they officiate it fairly. I think they make sure that they don't have an outcome in the winners, but I think certainly we all realize it's an entertainment business and they're going try to make the races as entertaining as possible."

Gordon said he looks for the same thing most athletes do in officials, and that's consistency.

But Gordon also sees entertainment as a legitimate factor, too.

"You can joke about it all you want, but I can tell you that yes, they want it to be entertaining," Gordon said. "Who wouldn't? Do we want Formula One that's not entertaining at all, but yet the integrity of the hard-core racing is there? We don't want that. I don't want that.

"I want a sport that can compete in America as a great racing series that is very entertaining to the fans. What makes it entertaining is cars that can pass and cars that bump and bang and have these great finishes.

Caution flags help make it entertaining as well. It's something that NASCAR tries to balance out - the entertainment side of it as well as the hard-core racing side of it.

"And sometimes it's a tough balance."