Earnhardt penalty sends strong message through Cup garage

NASCAR sent a clear message through the Nextel Cup garage with its strict penalty on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 team. Mess with the Car of Tomorrow, and NASCAR will mess with you, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: May 15, 2007, 7:35 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

No one is above the law, not even the prince himself, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And if you mess with the Car of Tomorrow, we're going to make you regret it.

Those are the messages from the NASCAR penalty police Tuesday after dropping a whopping 100-point and $100,000 fine on Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the No. 8 Chevy team.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. also has an unintended vacation from Nextel Cup races until the Pepsi 400 at Daytona on July 7, assuming he doesn't start serving his six-race suspension until the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27. Eury is off the pit box for one-sixth of the season.

So for all you conspiracy theorists who thought NASCAR never would come down hard on the golden boy, think again.

And all this for rear-wing mounting brackets at Darlington that weren't on the OK-list for COT parts and pieces.

I bet Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth don't feel so bad now about their punishment from violations at Daytona in February. They lost 50 points each and the crew chiefs served four-week suspensions with a $50,000 fine.

Those teams complained bitterly about it, feeling the penalty didn't fit the crime. Heck, they got off light compared to the 8 team.

The judgment ranks up there with Michael Waltrip's Daytona penalty of 100 points and 100 grand. And Waltrip's team clearly was cheating by using an illegal fuel additive.

Eury said using the wrong mounts was a careless mistake, not an attempt to cheat. I wonder how many hundreds of times that excuse has been used in NASCAR history?

The unapproved brackets could have changed the angle of the wing, which also could add downforce to the car. The violation was found in a pre-race inspection.

The legal parts were used in the race, and Earnhardt still has a solid run, finishing eighth.

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said he has no doubt the team did it intentionally.

I have no idea whether they intended to get some sort of advantage. And I don't think NASCAR officials really care at this point.

NASCAR warned the Cup teams that any parts violation on the COT would result in a severe punishment. They emphasized that no-no's involving the front splitter of the rear deck were particularly heinous.

Everyone got a grace period for a few races, but Darlington was race No. 5 on the COT schedule. Time's up boys.

NASCAR also has warned the teams that penalties would continue to escalate until everyone got the message that violations would not be tolerated.

Tony Eury Jr.
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesTony Eury Jr. said he understands why he got some unplanned R&R.

This message is as loud and clear as they come, and it's a painful one for Earnhardt. The penalty drops him below a Chase spot for the moment.

Earnhardt held the 12th and final Chase spot, but falls to 14th with the points deduction. He still has 15 races to climb back up to a qualifying spot.

But it's the last thing a lame-duck team needs in the middle of the season. The penalty comes only five days after Earnhardt's bombshell announcement that he's leaving DEI at the end of the year.

Eury probably will go where Earnhardt goes next year. No doubt some of the No. 8 crew will join them. The thought of mailing-it-in gets easier all the time.

I don't think these guys will do that. The No. 8 crew is a proud bunch. They want to go out winners, not guys who some cynics will say tried to cheat because they had nothing to lose.

And a few evil thinkers out there will say Earnhardt and Eury did it deliberately to stick it to DEI team owner Teresa Earnhardt.

Nonsense.

Regardless of what Earnhardt thinks or his stepmother, he knows his team is capable of making the Chase this season. And any team that makes the Chase has a shot at winning the championship.

That's the way any driver would love to go out; the ultimate "I told you so."

In one way, this could be good for DEI. Since Eury probably will join Earnhardt next season, this gives DEI a chance to break in a new crew chief (car chief Tony Gibson) for the 8 car.

If Earnhardt comes back from this, makes the Chase and competes for the title, it shows just how good he is and how much he's worth to the team owner that wins the Earnhardt sweepstakes.

But the real message is from NASCAR to all teams in the Cup garage: Mess with the COT and we'll mess with you, even if your name is Earnhardt.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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