- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On Sunday, the car Clint Bowyer won with at New Hampshire was legal. On Wednesday, it was not.
Some of you are confused.
If you were on the fence about trusting NASCAR -- and some of you are, according to your messages -- prior to Wednesday's announcement that Bowyer's championship hopes were dashed with a 150-point penalty because the car did not meet specified tolerances, then you've probably picked a side by now.
As one of you wrote on Twitter: "This sounds like another edition of NASCAR making up the rules as they go.''
Or, as another said: "What crap is this anyway another way to give someone else the championship???"
It is a precarious situation, one which NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby was asked about. His explanation: there are more complex mechanisms used at the Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., to catch violations than there are at the track.
Then bring those mechanisms to the track so this doesn't happen.
But finding a car that doesn't fit within the rules doesn't happen often. Hardly at all. Most violations are caught at the track and then revisited at the R&D center before a penalty is announced.
And when it does happen, it raises eyebrows, kind of like the mystery debris cautions that fans and drivers complain about.
NASCAR, as it should, takes offense at such accusations. As vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said, when a penalty such as Bowyer's occurs "it's not any easier on our part than it is on the competitor.''
Ah, the competitor.
Bowyer is the big loser in all of this. As he said repeatedly during a sponsor event at NASCAR's Hall of Fame less than an hour before the ruling, he just shows up at the track with his "helmet and HANS and I get in the car.''
"Anything that happens Sunday to Friday, I don't know,'' Bowyer added.
Whether or not you trust NASCAR, you've got to like the way Bowyer handled himself on this trying day. He showed amazing poise during the 90-minute event in which he awarded a new car to a fan from nearby Pineville, N.C. He was smiling, cracking jokes and answering questions as though he had not a care in the world.
When asked if he was worried about a possible penalty, he replied, "It would be a shame if something happened. It's part of the sport.''
He later jokingly asked if I paid the fan to ask the question since we in the media were limited to one about the car. He probably was just upset that the parking lot attendant mistook me for him and gave me his reserved spot.
But cheating is part of the sport. One just had to look at the cars on the Hall's Glory Road to understand that. Almost directly behind Bowyer, as he took fan questions, was one of the No. 11 cars driven by Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.
Johnson never hid the fact that he stretched the rules.
In front of Johnson's car was the No. 11 Mountain Dew car driven by Darrell Waltrip for Johnson. No further explanation needed there. Not far from those was the 1967 No. 43 Plymouth that Richard Petty drove to 27 victories.
Petty used to say it was good for the sponsors when teams were caught cheating because more people took notice.
"One time [NASCAR] caught me infringing just a little bit with soft tires and a big motor,'' Petty said of an incident after a win in a 1983 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "At that time we were working with STP, and they loved it because it was in the newspaper and they were getting their name out.''
Near Petty's car was the famous No. 21 driven by David Pearson, whose team used to add weight to the helmet going through inspection and then remove it for the race to have a lighter car.
And as cherished as the black No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt is, it's not hard to imagine that an illegal part or two might have been used along the way to his seven titles.
Yes, cheating happens in NASCAR. But most of the time it's black and white. It's caught at the track and punishment is expected.
In this case, there was a warning that the 33 was legal but close to not passing at Richmond, where Bowyer clinched a spot in the Chase two weeks ago. Then came the hammer three days later, after a win at New Hampshire, after the car had passed another inspection at the track.
Fans are going to be skeptical. Sports writers may be, too.
Team owner Richard Childress certainly sounds like he is. He plans to appeal the penalty, blaming the car being "sixty-thousandths of an inch, less than 1/16th of an inch'' off was the result of the wrecker hitting the bumper when Bowyer's car was pushed to pit road after running out of gas during his victory celebration.
He said it "doesn't make any sense at all'' that RCR would send a car to New Hampshire outside of the tolerances after being warned.
It doesn't, really.
Bowyer's probably scratching his head as well. All the momentum he gained, going from 12th place to second and 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin has been lost. Now he's in 12th place and 185 points back.
Bowyer knows the odds of collecting a championship trophy -- like the four consecutive won by Jimmie Johnson that were being displayed a few feet away from where he entertained fans -- aren't good. Bowyer also knows what he has to do to get back into contention.
"Shoot," he said as he drove his white pickup out of the parking garage next to the Hall. "Got to win a couple of more races.''
No confusion there.
Whether or not you trust NASCAR, you have to like Bowyer's attitude.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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