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Race Coverage
First Place

Matt Crossman
Sporting News

Drama Kings

            Racing at Daytona International Speedway makes drivers nuts because there’s so much to keep track of. There’s the draft, the side draft and the bump draft. There are drafting partners and drafting enemies and guys you just plain don’t see all day long. There’s the heart palpitations brought on by simply making the show, and the hummingbird heart rate of being in contention at the end.

            At Daytona, drivers are rewarded and punished on a seemingly random basis. One lap, you turn half sideways at 180 mph and nobody touches you and you carry on your own merry way, losing nary a spot. The next lap, you peek your nose out to see if you can make a run and-- NEEE-YOW, NEEE-YOW, NEEE-YOW, NEEE-YOW --you’re freight-trained back to 23rd. A top five can turn into a DNF faster than you can holler TROUBLE IN TURN 2! Mark Martin had all of this going through his mind in the final lap of the Daytona 500. Going through his heart was the thrill of victory as he took Turn 3 in the final lap, as the 26 drivers still on the lead lap chased him. Twenty-two years of not coming all that close at Daytona would disappear if he simply stayed out in front.

            As cars started wrecking behind him, he could taste victory again. The trophy would be his. He still was leading, and surely NASCAR officials would throw the caution.

            Throw the caution.

            Throw the caution.

            Throw the caution.

            But they didn’t throw it.

            They held it and held it. Until Kevin Harvick had charged--barely--past Martin and stole his glory and replaced it with agony. Martin refused to complain; he said nobody wants to see a grown man cry. Which isn’t the same as a grown man not wanting to cry. Martin--who four times has finished second in the season championship, once by fewer points than a controversial points penalty had erased from his total earlier in the season--again had come up excruciatingly short.

            Harvick’s win changed the story line of the week from teams breaking NASCAR’s rules to NASCAR’s enforcement of its rules. Which, in the minds of some in the sport, had been the story all along, anyway. Had NASCAR thrown the caution immediately when all heck broke loose, Martin would have won. But Harvick beat Martin to the finish line by inches--a controversial finish to the controversial weeks leading up to the Nextel Cup Series’ season-opening race. NASCAR calls the Daytona 500 the Great American Race. The final 40 laps were the Great American Spaz-out. “I kept my eyes shut there a little bit, it was so wild,” says Richard Childress, the owner of Harvick’s team.

            The unending sponsor events leading up to the race also make it the Great American Hype. One brisk morning last week, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson paired up with a handful of fans in a charity race inside the track. The course forced them to run through tires, then push another tire around pylons.

            Gatorade promised to donate $10,000 to the winning team’s charity. Johnson’s team dominated most of the event, but Kenseth staged a stunning late-race comeback and win. But Kenseth cheated--of course, he cheated!--by carrying the tire instead of rolling it around the pylons. He probably drank jet fuel beforehand, too.

            Such was life at Daytona. By the end of the Speedweeks, nobody was above suspicion. At least one driver from all four manufacturers got in trouble. Five of the 43 crew chiefs were suspended before the race started because their cars failed inspection. Michael Waltrip started the season 100 points in the hole and nearly destroyed his nascent relationship with Toyota before running a single points race.

            NASCAR came down ferociously on Michael Waltrip Racing--Waltrip is the owner and a driver--because “cheating the gas“ is the holy grail of motorsports malfeasance. Complete this quest of engineering without getting caught and you’ll be lionized for life; get caught and you might never work in the sport again. Waltrip’s crew chief and team director were suspended indefinitely--far more than a flesh wound for the fledgling team.

            Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs, Elliott Sadler and Kenseth also started the season in negative points and with suspended crew chiefs. Plus, the car Jeff Gordon used in winning a Gatorade Duel was deemed illegal; he was forced to start 42nd, second from last, at the Daytona 500, though NASCAR considered the violation an accident.

            It was a dizzying turn of events, and putting the cheating scandal in proper context is difficult because the context is so different. More high-caliber teams tried to qualify for the Daytona 500 than ever before, and more cars and more competition always seems to mean more cheating. Still, Martin says, teams aren’t cheating more--NASCAR officials just are looking harder and squawking louder once they catch scofflaws. NASCAR teams are like kids chasing waves at the beach. They get absolutely as close as they can without actually getting in the water, then rush back in a mad dash to stay dry. Yet, somehow their feet are wet.

            “We fudge every area we can,” Greg Biffle says. So does every other team--trying to gain fractions of inches in a sport in which fractions of seconds sometimes make a huge difference, and Sunday’s finish in NASCAR’s biggest race proved it.

            There’s a fuzzy line between fudging and cheating. Where that line is only NASCAR officials know, and they change it year to year, week to week and team to team, according to drivers, owners and crew chiefs.

            There is no consensus as to what is OK to try to get away with. Nor is there consensus regarding how strictly NASCAR should enforce the rules, even what those rules say, what they should say or how stiff penalties should be. Those penalized always feel hit upside the head by a two-by-four while their competitors see it as a slap on the wrist. In years past, NASCAR tried to prevent cheating by threatening to use the two-by-four. This year, NASCAR clearly is more willing to pull it out and swing it. “If you don’t make people do the right thing, they never will,” Jeff Burton says. “I learned that from a very young age, racing go-karts with my father cheating with a 7-year-old. Did I say that out loud?”

            This Daytona 500 was Martin’s 23rd, but his first driving the No. 01 Chevy for Ginn Racing after a storied 19 years piloting the No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing. Martin’s replacement in the No. 6, David Ragan, became the top finishing rookie by ending his night in fifth. The race was delayed with five laps remaining as crews worked to clean up debris. At the time, Ragan sat 10th, and he said he would have paid money to have the race end right there.

            “You and me both,” Martin said.