Crew chiefs scared straight
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The well-known crew chief on the other end of the phone hemmed and hawed. He had a strong opinion on why there have been no penalties during the first two races of the Sprint Cup season, an event apparently rarer than Matt Kenseth's opening with consecutive wins, but he didn't know how to be brutally honest without sounding offensive.
Then he blurted it out.
"We're scared s-------," he said, asking that his name not be used with such language.
Others agreed, although their words didn't quite capture the raw emotion of the crew chief above.
"That's pretty close to it," said Pat Tryson, crew chief for 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. "Everybody is scared to push the limit because of the penalties. Nobody wants to lose six races and the points that go with it. It's difficult enough to make the Chase as it is."
NASCAR has been escalating for about five seasons the punishment for those who intentionally or unintentionally create a competitive advantage in the premier series. The governing body took that to a new level when it introduced the new car two years ago, jacking fines that were as low as $2,500 to as high as $150,000 and increasing one-week suspensions to six weeks or indefinite ones.
And the suspensions have gone beyond the crew chief to the car chief and in some cases engineers.
As a result, violations fell from more than 50 in 2004 to 17 in 2007 to seven last season. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, can't remember a time during his 31 years as a crew chief and official that there hasn't been at least a minor penalty in the first two races, particularly at Daytona.
Dating back to the second race at Martinsville last season, there have been seven straight races without an infraction.
"Nobody wants to lose 150 points," said ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, who in 1995 was fined a then-unheard-of $60,000 for using an illegal suspension in Jeff Gordon's infamous T-Rex car. "If you do that, you're basically out of the game. People don't even think about it anymore."
True, times have changed. The days of "if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying" are over. Pushing the gray area has been so drastically reduced that the big joke after Jimmie Johnson won his third straight title was that crew chief Chad Knaus finally won one without sitting at least four races.
"Being creative is my job," Knaus said in 2002 when he earned his first major penalty, $25,000 for using offset mounting bolts on the front of truck trailing arms for the July Daytona race. "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."
Knaus declined to be interviewed for this article, but plenty others complied. They all agreed that the tight box NASCAR put them in as far as making adjustments to the new car, along with the heavy fines, has taken cheating out of their vocabulary.
That the governing body has a more defined set of rules with the new car and must approve every chassis at the research and development center before it can go to the track also is a factor.
"It just goes to show you can't take any chances with one part or piece of this car," said Todd Parrott, the crew chief for Bobby Labonte at Hall of Fame/Yates Racing. "From the way the wings are mounted to people playing with little stuff, it doesn't pay.
"You just work on your stuff to what the guidelines and rules say, and you go racing."
It's not just the penalties that keep teams from making the Chase that are a concern. The penalties also impact the top 35 in owners' points that determines which cars are guaranteed a spot in the race each week.
A year ago, the No. 66 car lost 150 owners' points for a violation at Lowe's Motor Speedway that took then-driver Scott Riggs from 26th to 34th. He had to drive his pants off the rest of the season to keep that car in the top 35, which was important because it gave Ryan Newman those points and a free pass for the first five races of 2009.
"You don't want to make any mistake because it's their ball and bat and their ballpark, and they'll get you," said Robert "Bootie" Barker, Riggs' crew chief last season and Michael Waltrip's this year. "Scared doesn't begin to describe it."
But scared "s-------" does, and not just because of NASCAR's punishment. Team owners also are becoming tougher.
"I know Max and Doug pretty much define the rules and the way we're supposed to conduct ourselves and bring our cars to the track," Parrott said of Yates Racing co-owners Max Jones and Doug Yates. "It's pretty much if we're doing anything to deliberately bend the rules and are caught, we're looking for a job."
Gordon and Johnson arrived at Sonoma, Calif., in 2007 with front fenders that had been tweaked to flare out above the wheel. The car still fit the new eight-point template used to determine whether the bodies meet specification, so Hendrick Motorsports officials thought they were legal.
NASCAR fined the drivers and car owners 100 points each and suspended crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Knaus for six races each. Letarte and Knaus also were fined $100,000 apiece.
"It's unprecedented," Cup series director John Darby said at the time.
It also was a defining moment for everybody in the garage who didn't get the message when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was suspended for six weeks after a wing-mount violation at Darlington.
Nothing will be tolerated.
Those who didn't get the message then surely did last season when Carl Edwards was docked 100 points and crew chief Bob Osborne was suspended for six weeks because the oil lid cover was loose on his winning car at Las Vegas.
If there were any lingering doubts about how serious NASCAR was, they ended at the July race in Daytona. Martin Truex Jr.'s car was impounded because it did not conform to specifications, Truex and owner Teresa Earnhardt were docked 150 points each, and crew chief Kevin Manion and car chief Gary Putnam were suspended for six races.
Manion also was fined $100,000.
"Everybody in the garage was going, 'WHAT?'" Barker said. "It all accumulated to where everybody went, 'Man, it ain't just this area or this area we can't touch. It's all areas.'"
Most agree there's really no excuse for being illegal the way NASCAR has defined the rules with the new car. That wasn't the case with the old car.
"You could move the chassis any way you wanted to move it," Parrott said. "The rules have been more defined with this new car. If anybody is caught playing with it, they're going to be subject to fines."
That's an important message for NASCAR, which wants to do away with the image that cheating is acceptable. Team owner Jack Roush believes the point has been made.
"NASCAR's policy of escalating penalties for violations have made teams lose interest in pushing the rules in areas where, in the past, NASCAR has given them the rulebook or the way they interpret the rules during inspections at the racetrack," Roush said.
"The surface of the new car is controlled so closely that the roll cage requires an inspection before you can put a body on it. If a car goes through a wreck, it has to be inspected again in order to certify it for use. There's not nearly as much opportunity as there was."
Forcing teams to have the chassis certified before going to the track plays a big role in that. Pemberton recounted several examples of cars that were sent back to the shop to be reworked after being found illegal at the R&D center.
Had that happened at the track, they would have been penalized.
"Last year we made a few statements, and the garage was ready for that, to be quite honest," Pemberton said. "They're, 'OK, [NASCAR] is buckling down. Now I don't lay awake at night trying to think of things to try to slide through.'"
Pass the antacid
Pemberton remembers vividly the sleepless nights he spent as a crew chief two weeks before the Daytona 500 worrying about things he'd done to get the last tenth of a second out of his car.
And with good reason. He was fined three different times during his career for a total of $85,000.
"You used your Tums on a regular basis before you went down there," he said. "When you talk to these guys now, they know what they need to work on to make their cars work good. They also know they're competing against guys whose cars fit the same grid, so they're more comfortable with that."
Some might argue that NASCAR has taken the fun out of being a crew chief. It definitely has redefined the role from the days when Junior Johnson and Smokey Yunick grew to legendary status for outsmarting management.
"There was a more romantic time for NASCAR and for the fans and the driver and between the crew and the inspectors," Roush said. "It was seen as a healthy competition between the inspectors and the mechanics and the crew chief. A lot of times there was a feeling on both sides in the garage that if you can get something by me it's OK, it's just good fun and it's just what we try to do to get an advantage.
"We're past that today. NASCAR has put a line in the sand and said, 'If you cross the rules you'll be penalized, and it's not funny and we'll treat you like you did something that was criminal.'"
That doesn't mean NASCAR can relax. Officials know there's always somebody trying to push the rules, and that the streak of races without a penalty could end this weekend at Las Vegas.
"We could cheat on anything in this car if we wanted to," Barker said. "But right now we're working on technical things to get better as hard as we can. We're not sitting around thinking about how to cheat." Said Tryson, "It's risk versus reward. It's how much do you want to risk for the reward." Not many are willing to risk putting their driver in a hole or getting heat from a sponsor -- or worse -- getting fired with so many already unemployed in this market because of the bad economy.
It's a new era for NASCAR.
"We're all just trying to be legal," Barker said. "If it says take an eighth of an inch, we take an eighth of an inch. We don't take three-sixteenths. A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for somebody like me."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.