Commentary

NASCAR shakes up Cup garage with 'huge, huge penalties'

What message did NASCAR convey when it hammered Haas CNC Racing for illegal wing mounts? Break the rules, pay the price, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: May 30, 2008, 5:07 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- Carl Edwards walked in the media center Friday and uttered one of the most surprising comments in NASCAR history:

"People in the garage are doing everything they can not to break the rules."

Edwards didn't have a little smirk on his face. He wasn't going for a PC moment. He meant it.

But this is NASCAR. Cheating isn't just a haphazard occurrence. It's an art form, a way to outsmart the man who has passed down the ranks for 60 years.

[+] EnlargeScott Riggs
AP Photo/Terry RennaA crew member stands by the backup car for Scott Riggs, whose primary ride was confiscated by NASCAR for having illegal wing mounts last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

What in the world has gotten into these guys?

In a word: fear. It's all about fear. NASCAR finally is making teams afraid. No one wants to face Judgment Day now.

Two teams for one organization paid the price this week. The crew chiefs for Haas CNC Racing could have put jet packs on the rear spoilers of their cars and still not won the Coca-Cola 600 last weekend.

NASCAR didn't care. The teams committed the cardinal sin of Sprint Cup: "Thou shalt not mess with these cars."

If you do, get ready to face the consequences. The punishment phase continues to escalate.

The No. 66 and 70 Chevy teams each have 150 fewer points than they had a week ago for violations on how the rear wings were mounted. The crew chiefs (Bootie Barker for the 66 and Derrick Jennings for the 70) also were suspended for six races and fined $100,000 each.

The fines and suspensions are the going rate for a big no-no, but the points hit set a record as the largest deduction since the new car began racing last season.

"Those are huge, huge penalties," said Edwards, who lost 100 points earlier this year from a NASCAR penalty. "Everybody in the garage understands the weight of these penalties."

Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of communications, said it's all about presenting a strong signal of intolerance for rule violations.

"I think we've been clear on this about any attempt to illegally alter this car," Poston said. "The punishment will be severe and swift.

"This is so important to the sport. We will not allow one team or a couple of teams to get an advantage. That's our obligation. When those 43 cars take the green flag, we want the people in the stands and the people watching at home to know each one has an equal opportunity under the rules."

For many years, teams were willing to take their medicine on a penalty NASCAR might impose because they gained more than they might lose.

I think we've been clear on this about any attempt to illegally alter this car. The punishment will be severe and swift.

-- Ramsey Poston

Crime paid in NASCAR. If you could cheat -- or push the envelope, if you prefer -- to get an advantage, do it. But the guys in the Cup garage are rethinking that theory now.

This week's action is no slap on the wrist. Being docked 150 points is equal to the difference between winning a race and finishing 41st.

"NASCAR has shown a willingness to stiffen these penalties," said Jeff Burton. "I think that's a good thing, especially when there isn't a question if it could have been a mistake."

There's always a question in the eyes of the accused. Barker said he set up the wing mounts the same way all season. NASCAR officials didn't see it that way after being tipped off that things changed after the initial inspection.

"NASCAR means business on this stuff," Greg Biffle said. "They continue to send the message that there's no gray area. It's cut and dried."

Well, not entirely. The gray area still exists, even with a car designed to eliminate it. We've seen it this year: The loose oil-tank lid on Edwards' car, the crabwalk design on the how the body sits to help the car turn, etc.

But working in the gray area is more of a gamble than it ever was in the past. Is the reward worth the risk?

Back in the day? Absolutely. Today? Maybe not.

"I know we are hypersensitive to anything that could be outside the box on rules after what happened to us," Edwards said. "NASCAR is making sure to get everyone's attention."

The 150-point hit doesn't change much for the No. 70 car, which is driven by Jason Leffler this weekend. The team already was well below the top 35 in the standings.

But the penalty places driver Scott Riggs and the No. 66 team in danger of falling outside the top 35 and losing its guaranteed spot in the field. The car was 26th in owner points but enters the Dover race only five points ahead of 36th place.

It's a painful drop, but big points penalties aren't always enough. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were penalized 100 points each last year at Sonoma when the cars didn't fit the template.

Ho hum. Johnson won the title and Gordon was second.

Drivers are seeded in the Chase based on wins, so NASCAR took things a step further this year with Edwards.

He was docked the 10 playoff bonus points he would have earned for the Las Vegas victory. Those 10 markers could hurt him worse than the 100 regular-season points.

What NASCAR hasn't done, and probably won't do, is force a team to sit out a race. Sponsors invest too much money for NASCAR to keep a car out of an event, not to mention the fans who pay to see their favorite car/driver in a race.

Teams know a violation won't place them on the sidelines, but the punishment these days might be more than they're willing to bear.

Finally, the fear factor is working for NASCAR.

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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