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NASCAR TRYING TO CLEAN ITS GARAGE OF CHEATING.

Byline: Tim Haddock Staff Writer

Cheating is as much a part of NASCAR as corked bats and emery boards are a part of baseball.

The difference is NASCAR expects its teams to push the limits of the rules and knows some will break them from time to time.

``We're not necessarily ashamed of having cork in a bat,'' said John Darby, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series director. ``We'd rather let the world know and our fans know that the cork was there and here is the penalty because of it.''

As NASCAR prepares for its biggest event of the season, today's Daytona 500, one of its top teams and the team of a two-time Cup champion got caught cheating. One driver lost his crew chief. Both lost their starting spots in the Gatorade Duel races.

And while NASCAR isn't afraid to admit it has cheaters in its midst, it is making penalties more severe and taking a closer look at how to prevent future infractions.

The latest cheaters to get caught were the guys who work on the race cars for Jimmie Johnson and Terry Labonte. In the case of Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus is facing a multirace suspension and has been kicked out of the Daytona 500.

Labonte just had to start at the back of the field for the Gatorade Duel, the qualifying race that determines the starting order for the Daytona 500.

On another front, the rules of racing are being tested as Tony Stewart recently questioned the practice of bump-drafting, running into the back of another driver's car so as not to lose momentum while racing around the track. It's not necessarily cheating to bump-draft, but it is a safety concern, especially on big tracks like Daytona International Speedway, where one little wiggle can cause a chain-reaction crash of tragic proportions.

The recent infractions have prompted NASCAR to take a serious look at rule breakers and benders and evaluate how it disciplines teams, crew members and drivers for such violations.

``Penalties are such that they need to be severe enough to deter either the individual that received the penalty, and more importantly the rest of the garage participants, to put them in a mind-set that the penalty is severe enough that you don't want to gamble with,'' Darby said. ``We will continue to rachet up the penalties until we get that message across.''

Knaus was hit with the most severe penalty. He won't be at the Daytona 500, and it's not quite clear when he will be welcome in a NASCAR track garage again.

``Daytona is the biggest race of the year,'' Johnson said. ``It's our Super Bowl. So obviously we're all disappointed and probably no one more so than Chad. I think he's the best crew chief in the business. He pushes hard every day to give me the best cars possible. He works incredible hours and puts his heart and soul into everything he does. He's very competitive.''

His offense: an altered rear windshield. NASCAR inspectors discovered that the rear windshield on Johnson's car was pushed out to the point that it greatly affected the aerodynamics of the car.

``Anything that you can do to raise the rear window in there essentially diverts air away from the spoiler,'' Darby said during a news conference last week at Daytona International Speedway. ``As everybody here well knows, Daytona and Talladega is all about aluminum parts. It's the little aluminum plate that sits under the carburetor. It's the big aluminum spoiler that sets on the back of the trunk. We use those in an effort to control the speeds of the cars to keep the race cars and the racing as safe as we can.''

Labonte's car had an altered carburetor. Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are the two tracks that NASCAR requires teams to put restrictor plates on the cars' carburetors. Labonte's plate was in the wrong spot.

``Quite frankly, the modification done to the carburetor is more to enhance fuel economy than it was performance,'' Darby said. ``Understanding qualifying is only two laps, and it's not really a concern of the teams to try to save fuel on those two laps, but ultimately to get the most speed out of the car. That carburetor kind of falls into, yes, the piece is incorrect, so we have to react as we normally do. But as far as the intent to circumvent the rules, we don't believe that was there.''

One car was altered enough that it created a dangerous racing situation in NASCAR's eyes. The other car was altered as the result of an honest mistake. Thus the difference in the punishments.

But bump-drafting is a-whole-nother issue.

While in the past bump-drafting was an acceptable practice, even at Daytona, NASCAR has decided to add spotters to specifically monitor the amount and severity of bump-drafting that goes on during a race.

``Every bump-draft will not create a penalty,'' Darby said. ``Every time a car touches another car, it will not create a penalty. But if it becomes very apparent to us that that there is an unnecessary hit, and specifically in one of those no zones, then we will have the ability to react to that.''

NASCAR officials know they are never going to rid the sport of cheaters. They probably wouldn't want it that way, anyway.

But they do want their drivers and teams to respect the rules that are set. Test them, push them, find their limits, but ultimately work within the parameters of the rules.

``I don't think we're a unique sport,'' Darby said. ``I don't believe we have a unique situation. What we do have is when you compound a team of 20 people, and you add in a machine that has over 5,000 moving parts, right, there's a lot more there to play with.

``With that ability, there's a lot more there for us to inspect. There's a lot more rules that we continue to look at. It's a bigger candy jar to reach in. There's more than one jelly bean in that jar.''

Tim Haddock, (818) 713-3715

timothy.haddock(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo, 2 boxes

Photo:

Jimmie Johnson (right) saw his crew chief kicked out of the Daytona 500.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Box:

(1) NEXTEL CUP: Daytona 500

SOURCE: NASCAR

AP

(2) DAYTONA 500
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 19, 2006
Words:1060
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