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Monte Dutton, Area Auto Racing News

With Mikey, it’s hard to say if he’s truthful or acting

            DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Michael Waltrip apologized profusely for his team’s unprecedented transgressions at Daytona International Speedway, it was difficult to determine whether he was genuine or not.

            Sure, Waltrip’s sorry he was punished. He’s sorry he lost two key members of his team. He’s sorry to have been humiliated and caught in a lie on national television.

            What’s hard – at a point in civilization where the mantra is “image is everything” – is determining what’s real and what’s image.

            In Waltrip’s case, it’s always hard to determine whether or not he’s genuine. He turns the charm on and off at the same rate as the red light on a television camera. He can be as funny as Jay Leno, as off-beat as David Letterman and as irreverent as Jon Stewart. Particularly in one-on-one situations, Waltrip can also be as rude as Bob Knight and as arrogant as George Steinbrenner.

            In the Daytona International Speedway media center, Waltrip was remorseful and contrite.  He said he was “so upset I wanted to go home,” and that “ever since Sunday, my life has been a mess.” He said he “didn’t want to taint this wonderful race.” He said he remained to compete in Thursday’s qualifying races because NASCAR president Mike Helton – whom he referred to repeatedly as “Mr. Helton” -- told him “you gotta race because that’s what we do.”

            So what was that about? Was Waltrip the tortured miscreant – James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – or the shameless name-dropper – Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver.

            The remarks in Waltrip’s morning press conference sounded, on the one hand, like Lou Gehrig on his retirement from the Yankees, and, on the other, like Richard Nixon in his “Checkers speech.” It wouldn’t have been surprising had Waltrip said of wife Buffy that she wore “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” as Nixon once said of Pat.

            Whatever his motivations, fortune smiled once again on Waltrip. Not only did he make the Daytona 500 field a day after he almost got kicked out of it, but he managed to get all three of his new Toyota team’s entries into the field.

            Waltrip, four days after he assured a national-TV audience that there was nothing in his car’s manifold but motor oil, disavowed any knowledge that anything amiss was going on and said, “I still haven’t got anybody to ‘fess up to rigging up a means of getting an illegal fuel mixture into the engine.”

            Interesting, of course, that two of his employees managed to be suspended “indefinitely” -- i.e., until NASCAR is good and ready to let them back -- without even providing so much as a confession.

NASCAR competition vice president Robin Pemberton said he hoped the wave of punitive actions has run its course after two days during which the ruling body issued penalties unprecedented in their scope and severity.

            Michael Waltrip Racing’s own competition vice president, Bobby Kennedy, and Waltrip’s crew chief, David Hyder, were suspended indefinitely and ejected from the grounds. Hyder received a $100,000 fine. Waltrip was docked 100 points in driver standings – despite the fact that the season hadn’t started and he didn’t have any – and the listed owner, his wife Buffy, lost 100 points in owner standings.

            NASCAR also confiscated Waltrip’s primary car. He was allowed to compete in his qualifying race in a backup.

            The latest actions occurred a day after Ray Evernham’s three Dodge teams and one of Jack Roush’s Ford teams received fines totaling $150,000, suspensions of four crew chiefs for either two or four races, and deductions of driver and owner points totaling 150 in each category. The affected drivers were Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs.

            After officials removed an intake manifold from Waltrip’s No. 55 Toyota, he was allowed to make a qualifying run on Sunday. Afterwards, irregularities were uncovered after he completed that run. As a result, his qualifying speed was disallowed on Wednesday, meaning that Waltrip will have to start at the back of the field along with Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, two drivers who had their own speeds disallowed on Sunday.

            The fines were issued on the basis of three sections in the Nextel Cup Series Rule Book, the most pertinent of which reads, in part: “Gasoline must not be blended with alcohols, ethers or other oxygenates.”

            Pemberton said inspectors had never seen a substance similar to the one found.

            In view of violations being discovered – apparently the “substance” detected in the manifold was injected via either the fuel cell or fuel line – officials decided to impound the car and take it to the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord.

            “Due to the severity of the infractions, we feel we need to further investigate and get our officials further educated based on what we discovered,” said Pemberton. “There was a foreign substance we feel should not have been inside the engine. We took this long (to announce) the penalties because we felt we needed the extra time to do the right thing.”

            Waltrip told a national television audience on Sunday that the “substance” was motor oil. The car he drives was the only one from his three-car stable in which irregularities were uncovered.

            “It was completely different,” said Pemberton. “It had no relation to motor oil. It was the only car that failed any of the inspections like this. A fuel additive is so critical at a track like this, and it’s something we will not tolerate.”

            Pemberton said he thought the penalties had run their course.

“I think, at this point in time, we will circle back with our group at the R&D Center,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s anything else that could be in the car. I think we’re confident we’ve done a good job here. If there is something else, we’ll do something about it, but I don’t think there will be an additional problem.”

            Pemberton also attempted to allay fears that Toyota had anything to do with cheating among its teams.

“This is a team issue,” he said. “This has nothing to do with a manufacturer whatsoever. This is a highly competitive field, and this was one team that wasn’t guaranteed to get in the field, and I think they went across the line to try to ensure a spot in the starting field.”

Toyota’s motorsports vice president, Jim Aust, immediately issued a statement that read, in part:
“We are very disappointed and concerned in the events that have happened over the past few days. These activities have been a distraction from our main goal this weekend, which is compete in the Daytona 500.

“Toyota certainly does not condone actions such as these by any of our NASCAR team partners. … Toyota is a company that was built on integrity, and that remains one of the guiding principles of the company.

“We want to compete, we want to win races and we want to challenge for championships, all while following the rules.”

Asked about the “indefinite” suspensions, Pemberton said it would be “a long time” before either Kennedy or Hyder would be allowed to return. He said the team could eventually request a review with the possibility of eventual reinstatement.