DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There were 21 NASCAR officials patrolling the garage area during this week's test session at Daytona International Speedway, but they weren't looking too hard for problems.
The teams shaking down cars for the Daytona 500 basically had a free pass on obeying the litany of rules that usually keep creative thinking on a short leash. They could push beyond the gray area if they wanted without fear of fines or reduction of points in the overall standings.
No matter how lenient the sanctioning body appeared, everyone was clear on one thing: Race teams better enjoy it while it lasts. When the sport begins its 2003 schedule in February, the same people who turned their backs to violations this week will be inspecting for infractions.
The test session, mandatory for every team with intentions of competing in the season opener, also is a time for the sport's police force to sharpen its skills. The sanctioning body can look at cars and make mental notes on the different ways teams will try to gain an edge by dancing around the rulebook.
As long as it happens during the test session, everything except playing with the restrictor plate is fair game.
''If a team asks for an inspection of their car, we'll provide it,'' said John Darby, NASCAR's director of competition. ''If in doing that we see minor or major violations, yes, we will tell them.''
The garage area where NASCAR keeps its scales and stacks of templates an area known as the ''Room of Doom'' by the competitors did get many takers for ''free'' inspections during the first test session Tuesday. The few who braved the sanctioning body's watchful eye learned just how meticulous NASCAR will be when they return for pole qualifying, the Budweiser Shootout all-star race and the Daytona 500.
''We wanted to be sure we were right, so we took a car over there,'' Bob by Labonte said. ''They found a couple things we didn't even know about. You might as well get it right now because they aren't going to let you get away with it when you come back.''
For Labonte's team, the trouble was a new rule that limits the amount of weight on the rear wheels. NASCAR is restricting the amount of weight in the back of the cars at Daytona and its sister track at Talladega, Ala., to make sure the trunk doesn't drop below specifications.
Other new rules NASCAR passed along this year include requiring a new nose piece for the Dodge Intrepid, a new rear deck for the Ford Taurus and a complete overhaul of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix.
Also, teams now are required to have exact positioning of the car bodies. The distance from the front edge of the roof to the rear axle must be consistent. In the past, teams could play with that positioning by as much as eight inches, Darby said.
When teams return in February, many cars might need more than a day to get their stamps of approval.
''The competitors kind of drive that,'' Darby said of the length of the process. ''If they listen and everyone understands what we want to do and understand the inspection procedures, it becomes pretty much a click-click, slam-slam deal. If there are struggles with every car, it could be lengthy.''
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