Cheating part of the game in NASCAR

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005

''Being creative is my job,'' crew chief Chad Knaus said when he earned his first major penalty in 2002. ''If I am going to get fined and penalized for being creative, then that's just part of it.

''Besides, the other guys are cheatin' more than we are.''

Maybe so, but Knaus and his peers may start thinking about following the rules to the letter of the law from now on: Knaus and two other crew chiefs were suspended this week as NASCAR cracked down on its culture of cheating.

Knaus was suspended for two weeks and fined $35,000 after race-winner Jimmie Johnson's car was found to be too low following a victory in Las Vegas. Johnson was docked 25 points, which cost him his spot atop the Nextel Cup standings.

Make no mistake about it, Johnson should consider himself fortunate he was allowed to keep the win.

NASCAR has a long-standing tradition of not changing the race winner after an event. The argument is that it is confusing to the fan, who just cheered his driver on to victory, only to go home and read in the next day's paper that his guy actually didn't win the race.

But in NASCAR's push to stop cheating — the sanctioning body first relied on monetary fines, then upped the stakes to docking points in 2002 before issuing Tuesday's suspensions of Knaus and the crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick (one month) and Kyle Busch (two weeks) — taking victories just might be the next step.

''It is not fair to the fans or to the cars that are legal for a victory to be tainted,'' said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. ''We've tried money and we've tried points and nothing works. Hopefully the light will go by some crew chiefs taking a vacation and we won't have to do anything else.

''But if we have to consider further action, we will.''

NASCAR might have to because, as word spread through the Nextel Cup circuit about the suspensions, some considered the penalties a slap on the wrist.

''I've got three drivers who would trade $25,000, 25 points and a suspension for a win,'' said Chip Ganassi, car owner for Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears.

''You want to stop cheating? Take the wins away.''

The problem is, NASCAR never will be able to 100 percent police cheating — because what it deems illegal, a crew chief might view as a loophole in the rules.

The late Smokey Yunick was the master of massaging the rule book, maintaining that if something was not specifically outlawed, it was assumed to be legal. It led to a decades-long feud between Yunick and NASCAR's ruling France family, and inspectors spent hours each week picking over Yunick's race entries.

In one of the most notorious Yunick stories, NASCAR questioned the fuel mileage of one of his cars after rivals accused him of having an oversized fuel tank. NASCAR removed the fuel tank, and after a heated argument, Yunick climbed into his car and drove it away without a fuel tank.

Now that Brian France, grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France, is running the sport, he's more interested in integrity than the tradition of teams trying to pull a fast one over on inspectors.

That's why the latest round of penalties was so stiff, and why NASCAR found no humor in Todd Berrier admitting to illegally rigging Harvick's fuel tank.

In a different day, Berrier's boasting would have been funny. But when he essentially told the media he knows why he got caught, and wouldn't hesitate to do it again, France and NASCAR president Mike Helton hit the roof.

''Anybody is free to be as aggressive against the line as they want to be, that's their job — to go all the way to the line but still be in compliance,'' France said. ''If they miscalculate, even in the smallest way, we have to address it to maintain the credibility of the rules process.''

Car owner Rick Hendrick has maintained that the penalties against Knaus and Busch crew chief Alan Gustafson were too harsh and he is appealing. So is Childress, even though Berrier told reporters that his boss encourages him to tweak the rules.

But at least one driver said NASCAR is finally on the right track.

''It's getting to the point where NASCAR doesn't want to see people cheating. They want it to be fair for everybody, which I think is great,'' said 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte. ''By NASCAR taking points away and fining them and giving them suspensions, it keeps escalating.

''It's going to get to a point where everybody says this is way too much. Is it too much right now? No, but it's taking steps to get people's attention, I guess.''

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