NASCAR knows cheating when it sees it

Updated: February 18, 2006, 2:48 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR drivers won't undergo urine testing prior to Sunday's Daytona 500, but the sport's sanctioning body is cracking down on its own version of performance enhancement.

Not juiced-up drivers; juiced-up cars.

After NASCAR suspended crew chief Chad Knaus for a rules infraction last week, talk of cheating at the sport's highest level has permeated through the Daytona garage. Knaus was ejected on Monday from all Daytona activities, including calling Sunday's race for driver Jimmie Johnson, after officials discovered a raised rear window on Johnson's No. 48 Chevy during post-qualifying technical inspection. NASCAR said the illegal modification could have made the car faster by directing air away from its rear spoiler wing.

Following the announcement, just about everyone weighed in on the issue of cheating in NASCAR. The result: Other stories have taken a back seat to rules infractions and the sanctioning body said it must do more to deter cheating and move the focus back to racing.

"We've got such great action, probably the best rookie crowd in recent memory, and a lot to talk about … on the track -- and [cheating] is a big distraction," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. "… We're going to have to get tough on that.''

In that vein, France said further penalties may be handed to Knaus after the race.

But while some team owners are happy to see that NASCAR is getting tough on cheating, even they have light-hearted acceptance for its existence. Team owner Robert Yates, one of the most vocal critics of the practice, said on Friday: "I'm going to sit here and lie to you; I've never cheated."

Joked Dale Earnhardt Jr., "If [my crew chief Tony Eury Jr.] is cheating, he ain't telling me. He knows I got a big mouth."

Why the insouciant attitude toward performance enhancing in a time when performance enhancement in other sports is so vehemently condemned? Well, for one thing, performance enhancement in NASCAR doesn't involve the use of drugs. An even more commonly cited reason is that while steroids are a relatively new culprit in stick-and-ball sports, cheating has had its role in NASCAR from the moment Bill France Sr. organized a band of bootleggers and offered money to the guy who could find a way to win.

"Way back, they had a few rules and you got between the rules and sometimes you'd get by with stuff," said Richard Petty, a seven-time champion and the son of Lee Petty, winner of the first NASCAR race held at Daytona International Speedway. "I always told my guys, 'Cheat neat and you'll get by with a bunch of stuff.' "

Petty admitted, though, that "those days are pretty much over."

Why? Good or bad, attribute it to another casualty of NASCAR going big-time.

"They caught me infringing just a little bit with soft tires and a big motor, and at the time we were working with [sponsor] STP," Petty said. "They loved it because it was in the newspaper and they were getting their name out there and they loved it. It would not work with [current sponsor] Cheerios."

Team owner Richard Childress found that out last year when one of his sponsors expressed disappointment last season.

"Times have changed so much and sponsors are putting so much money into it," he said. "I got a call [from a sponsor] last year and they definitely don't appreciate getting their name in the paper for ... I like to call it being competitive; I don't like to call it cheating. But times have changed. We're under a huge microscope today with the media and TV coverage. The least little bump becomes a huge mogul. Everybody is watching."

Yates sees a difference between some of the "cheating" that went on at the sport's formative years and what is done today. When a team finds a way to gain an advantage without expressly violating a rule, it's OK. Crews and drivers commonly call this "playing with the gray area." But when a specific rule is breached, Yates said NASCAR must hold violaters accountable.

"Once there's a rule written," he said, "I feel as if it's stealing from you if you bend that.

"When you come up with a device that'll lower the body [of the car to make it more aerodynamic] and [NASCAR] writes a rule that says no devices can do that, then I think that's when you need to get off of that and find something else. But when you come up with a shock absorber and it's within the rules, more power to them."

The line between breaking a specific rule and playing in the gray area, however, is a thin one. After all, some say there is no specific rule against what Knaus did, but in the pursuit of gaining the most advantage possible within that gray area, he might have stepped over the line. That's why policing cheaters might be as amorphous as the gray in which teams are expected to remain. Indeed, the borders of the gray area cannot be defined until teams see what constitutes going too far.

"Everybody tries to get as close to that gray line as they can," Childress said.

Some get close more often than others, or at least that's their reputation. Knaus is well-known as a guy who "pushes the envelope," as his driver put it. Another crew chief who draws suspicion is Todd Berrier, the crew chief for the Childress-owned No. 29 Chevy driven by Kevin Harvick. Berrier was suspended twice last year.

But while these guys take a ribbing from their peers, they aren't outcasts.

"It's tolerated because there's not a one of us in the garage area that hasn't pushed the limit, whether they got caught or not," Petty said. "Everybody tries to get the advantage."

How far will they go? And how sensitive will NASCAR be?

Postrace inspection immediately follows the Daytona 500. Stay tuned: Rule-breakers are identified on Monday.

"NASCAR is cracking down on those things," driver Jeff Gordon, a part-owner of the No. 48 Chevy, said. "And if they find something, they've got to set the precedent for the rest of the field and also for the rest of the season."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com

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