NASCAR cheaters, crew chiefs face more punishment


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – NASCAR has not ruled out suspending drivers as a deterrent for cheating on the Car of Tomorrow.

Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were all docked 100 points when their cars failed recent inspections. Their crew chiefs were fined $100,000 and suspended six races a piece, but the drivers have been allowed to compete and all three are in contention for the Chase for the championship.

“We’d like not to get to (suspending drivers),” chairman Brian France said during a conference call Tuesday. “We’d like to make the deterrent, a portion of the penalty, significant enough that that isn’t necessary for us to do.

“But are we willing to go there? Of course we would. We have in the past and we will in the future. We’re not hoping to do that. That’s sort of a death penalty.”

France also said NASCAR is investigating reports that crew chiefs Chad Knaus, Steve Letarte and Tony Eury Jr. were at New Hampshire International Speedway last weekend despite their suspensions. All three are banned from the garage area during their suspensions, but the national television and radio broadcasts both reported the Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs were on track property and in communication with their drivers.

One report even said Letarte participated in a Saturday team meeting with Gordon.

And, Eury Jr. apparently parked his motorcoach on a hill inside the race track and communicated with Earnhardt from there.

Earnhardt reportedly spotted his crew chief during a caution period, first yelling “Hey Man!” on his radio and then explaining “I just saw a friend out there.”

The conversation was described in Earnhardt’s post-race media report, and explained as Earnhardt spotted a familiar face who “will return to the Bud pit box next week at Daytona.” Eury’s suspension ended Sunday and he’s scheduled to return to the track this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

France said the crew chiefs being on property and participating in at-track activity is not in the spirit of a suspension and that he met earlier Tuesday with NASCAR president Mike Helton to discuss the matter.

“If that all is accurate, we will be addressing that shortly,” France said.

France did not reveal what NASCAR might do to police such activity. Officials can keep suspended team members out of the garage area, but may not be able to prevent them from entering the motorhome lot, the grandstands or the luxury suites.

Keeping them from communicating with the rest of the team, which can be done via telephone or computer, would also be difficult.

Letarte and Knaus must sit out the next five races, and quite possibly planned to be in Daytona this weekend to confer with their teams. Gordon is the current Nextel Cup points leader and Johnson, the defending series champion, is fourth in points.

Other topics France discussed Tuesday were:

– International expansion: France recently traveled to China with his senior management group to tour a track in Shanghai and discuss opportunities in the Far East. NASCAR will make its Canadian debut next month with a Busch Series race in Montreal, and the series already competes in Mexico City.

“We’ll be careful of how we proceed, but we’ll be looking at building our international platform,” he said.

– Going Green: NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel this season, and France said he’s been exploring alternative fuels. “It’s important for NASCAR to lead in some areas – this being one of them – when it comes to the environment, when it comes to our dependency on foreign oil. It’s important for us to stay in a leadership position,” he said.

– Lawsuits: NASCAR is fighting a claim by AT&T to replace Cingular as the logos on Jeff Burton’s car, a move NASCAR is against because of its exclusivity agreement with rival Nextel. And, France said NASCAR continues to defend itself in an antitrust suit filed by Kentucky Speedway.

– Busch Series sponsorship: France said NASCAR remains on track to have an announcement this summer on a replacement for Anheuser-Busch, which is pulling out as Busch Series title sponsor after this season. “We’re going to get a partner for the long haul of the country’s second most popular form of motorsports,” he said.

But the bulk of his time was spent discussing cheating, which has been prevalent in the sport since the season-opening Daytona 500.

Five teams were caught breaking the rules in Daytona, and NASCAR has attempted to ramp up its penalty process each time.

He said Gordon and Johnson’s punishment was the strongest to date because the drivers were not given any track time for one day in Sonoma, Calif., and not being able to qualify their cars “pretty much eliminated them from contention of winning that race in our view.”

Gordon finished that race in seventh, Johnson was 17th.

“We feel very strongly that we’re going to be very, very tough on people that test us with the Car of Tomorrow,” France said. “The whole premise is built around not being able to do much fudging with the car.”

NASCAR disqualified Brian Vickers last week at New Hampshire when his car failed a post-qualifying inspection. Because he is not one of the 35 teams locked into the starting field, the penalty cost him a spot in the race.

But the penalties levied against Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt have not had the same effect. In fact, Gordon had such a cushion in the standings, he still holds a 156-point lead over Denny Hamlin after losing 100 points.

France said NASCAR won’t customize its penalties to impact teams differently.

“The teams that are winning, despite what we may fine them, they are just good teams,” France said. “They’re going to win when they race with the same rules package everybody else has … they get through any kind of adversity to a point.

“We can’t just customize the penalty based on the circumstance. We can’t just say that is going to be 200 instead of 100 because he has a big lead. But we can find the right penalties.”