DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The days of operating in the gray area of NASCAR's rulebook have been replaced with red, green, yellow and blue templates.
Teams that used to shave a little here and add a little there to twist the shape of a car into a rocket ship now are confined to the exact shape of 32 templates that create the most reviled word in racing parity.
It took seven hours for 19 cars in the Budweiser Shootout all-star race to pass inspection. It took 14 hours for the cars running in the season-opening Daytona 500 to earn their fluorescent windshield sticker, NASCAR's symbol for a passing grade.
Individual inspections of the past lasted only a few minutes. It took NASCAR about two hours to inspect all the cars before a race. Now inspectors spend more than 15 minutes on each car, and violators are sent back to the garage for repairs.
And the process starts all over again.
NASCAR was so concerned that teams were not used to such detailed inspections that it opened the garage area a day early at Rockingham, N.C. And although it took nearly a day to get every car through the process, NASCAR had proven its point: Everyone has to follow the rules.
''It's amazing we got through because the process is so strict,'' said Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.
John Darby, the director of competition, is in his second year as racing's top cop. He established his rule a year ago with fines and point reductions. He also suspended Kevin Harvick for one race for rough driving.
Years ago NASCAR visited several dealerships and made basic templates of production cars. Teams were allowed to vary in their designs by a half-inch, but the cars had to maintain their ''stock appearance.'' The production car's vehicle identification number was stamped on each template for authenticity.
Today's templates are color-coded: blue for Ford, red for Dodge, yellow for Chevrolet and green for Pontiac. NASCAR inspectors not only require all 32 templates to fit, but they also have a keen eye for the tricks used by teams with engines and suspension. Some of the catches have been big, but most are small ones that used to breeze through the process.
The cars on the circuit today the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus and Pontiac Grand Prix are far from ''stock.'' The Taurus, for example, is available only in a four-dour sedan to the paying public. The racing version is a two-door model that's never been in production.
Darby's rule did in one year what no other could: He moved the cars closer to common templates.
NASCAR helped design the racing versions of all four manufacturers and more than half of the templates are identical. The area from the beginning of the windshield to the bottom edge of the rear window an area known as the greenhouse is identical for all four manufacturers.
Darby's reasoning for ''aerodynamic similarities'' is to make it easier to patrol.
It took a couple races, but the teams understand exactly what that means.
''NASCAR warned us it would be strict, and it has been,'' said Ben Leslie, Mark Martin's crew chief. ''We don't have to like it. But as long as NASCAR sticks to what they are doing and are being consistent and treating us all alike, none of us can complain.''
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The process moved quickly at Las Vegas and last week at Atlanta because teams now understand they can't operate in the gray area. They have to conform exactly to their red, blue, yellow or green templates.
''My hat's off to the race teams,'' Darby said. ''I have a ton of respect for the teams in this garage area and the fabricators and the crew chiefs and everybody else that have taken the new program and taken it seriously and took the extra setup time in the shops to make sure they're correct when they get here.''
A year ago Darby caused a similar stir in the garage area with the single-engine rule that limits teams to one engine during a race weekend.
''By June it was business as usual,'' Darby said of the way the sport adjusted to the engine rule. ''I don't expect anything different this year when we get to June. It'll be a normal procedure that you come to the track and do.''
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