No room to wiggle when it comes to Car of Tomorrow

NASCAR Nation learned a valuable lesson after steep penalties were levied against the Hendrick Motorsports teams of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson: There is no wiggle room when it comes to the COT, writes David Newton.

Updated: June 29, 2007, 8:36 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- A light gray smoke from the cigarette of Nextel Cup series director John Darby faded into the air at New Hampshire International Speedway early Friday afternoon.

Apparently, that's the only gray that will be tolerated in the garage.

Especially if it's a Car of Tomorrow race.

The garage still is buzzing about the severity of the penalties handed to the Hendrick Motorsports teams of points leader Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson after their cars failed initial inspection last weekend because the front right fenders were bent beyond the wheel well.

Gordon particularly was outspoken, saying he was disappointed in NASCAR's decision to suspend crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus for six races and fine each $100,000, as well as dock him and Johnson 100 championship points.

"But I will say we're crystal clear going forward," Gordon said. "We're clear now that there is no gray area. But prior to last week -- I shouldn't include every crew chief -- I know it was not as clear as what I think NASCAR thought that it was."

It is clear now.

If it's not, NASCAR is prepared to expand the suspension to car chiefs and engineers -- whatever it takes to get the message across.

"It could grow into multiple suspensions," Darby said as he sat outside the hauler otherwise known as the NASCAR principal's office.

Teams have understood for years that messing with the gray area in engines will not be tolerated. Now they're discovering that the body is off limits as well.

"After this we called the whole company together and said, 'Here's where they want us to work, this is what the grid does and this is the line we have to follow,' " said Robbie Reiser, the crew chief for Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth.

"We had a pretty informative meeting on where we are going and what we are trying to accomplish."

Chad Knaus
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson, right, will be without suspended crew chief Chad Knaus for six races.

A lot of teams did. Until the penalties were announced on Tuesday many weren't sure just how far they could push the governing body with the COT.

"I wasn't that sure on it," Reiser said. "I knew they were tightening up on it, but I wasn't sure it was that much."

Doug Richert, the crew chief for Brian Vickers, met with Darby on Friday morning to find out just how much.

"The thing we've got to do is keep up with that so we don't do it ourselves, not knowing what we might be doing," he said. "You've got to try to understand what they're looking for. I wish I had a picture of it so I know what threw the flag."

Darby doesn't think it's that difficult. He reminded that NASCAR issued an electronic file outlining all specifications before the season and that officials have been working with teams for more than a year on the car and inspection process.

That's why he was so disappointed when Doug Duchardt, the vice president of development at Hendrick Motorsports, said the company wasn't totally aware of the tolerances before last weekend.

"We didn't introduce the inspection process the day we walked into Bristol with the new car," Darby said of the first COT race. "This is something we've worked with the teams for the past year. We've had multiple weekly meetings with engineers from every team.

"We spent more time educating everybody with the new inspection process with this car than anything we've ever done. If they didn't understand it I don't know why."

They understand now.

"But we didn't drive into the track going, 'Boy, we're on the edge now,' " said Duchardt, crossing his fingers. "It was all a shock to us."

Gordon would like to avoid that shock again, particularly during the Championship Chase when a points deduction could be catastrophic.

He said HMS actually requested that NASCAR scan the bodies of the cars prior to arriving at the track to certify them just as they do the chassis at the Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.

The perfect rulebook doesn't have a lot of gray area. I don't know if we've got every bit of it erased. I'm pretty comfortable we've got 99 percent out of it.

John Darby

Darby laughed, saying there isn't anybody that can fabricate a body within the tolerance of what a scan will show.

"If we start scanning cars it'll make our tolerances of a plus or minus an eighth or plus or minus a quarter ... look like they're pretty darn good," he said. "When you start scanning stuff you see areas that are off by a thousandth of an inch."

To further complicate matters, Darby said officials can't always physically show teams where a car is off from an electronic scan.

"The templates are still a very visual, mechanical measurement," he said. "If you miss a template I can show you where you missed and by how much.

"These cars are still welded together and hand-fabricated by human beings. NASCAR's tolerances on the new car are tighter than what Detroit uses on what you or I use on the streets."

Those tolerances forced HMS to change the right fender of cars on all four teams moving forward. Duchardt said the cars of Kyle Busch and Casey Mears met specifications last weekend only because they were set aside before work on the other cars began.

Nobody's taking any chances now.

"It's gotten everybody nervous," driver Jeff Burton said. "Everybody is on pins and needles, but that's what they want. We can't think the same anymore. This has been a game of, 'What is NASCAR going to let you get by with,' and it's no longer that game.

"There is nothing they want you to do with these bodies. There is no wiggle room."

This week's penalties, along with those handed to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team -- Earnhardt was fined 100 points and lost crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for six weeks for an illegal wing mount at Darlington -- proved that.

"They got a pretty strong point out," Richert said. "It's all you hear about in the garage."

Darby hopes people will continue to talk about it to the point the gray area beyond his cigarette smoke is eliminated.

"The perfect rulebook doesn't have a lot of gray area," he said. "I don't know if we've got every bit of it erased. I'm pretty comfortable we've got 99 percent out of it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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