A fine line
The long-term premise of the Car Of Tomorrow is simple: Create the same type of vehicle for each team to use, and everyone will start with the same opportunity to succeed on the racetrack. NASCAR's goal is to put the race back in the hands of the driver, not the team that has the most money or the manufacturer that can build the best car.
In theory, it's a great idea. There's just one problem -- it's not just the drivers that make up the sport of stock car racing. As we've seen over the past month, the crews make just as much of an impact on the final results sheet, and no matter how many rules NASCAR puts in place, they're never going to stop pushing that competitive edge.
But this week we have been reminded just how much NASCAR wants to limit that envelope.
On Tuesday, NASCAR docked Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon 100 driver points each and suspended their crew chiefs, Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte, respectively, for six races after both drivers failed their pre-race car inspections last Friday at Sonoma. Officials discovered that the right front fenders of both vehicles were outside the Car of Tomorrow specifications. With the sheet metal spread out beyond the wheel in order to create an aerodynamic advantage, Hendrick Motorsports thought they were improving parts and pieces they felt they could have touched within the rules.
Apparently, NASCAR doesn't feel the same way. By penalizing Hendrick, it did what it felt was right under the rulebook. And in a sport where giving a slap on the wrist has been a hallmark of how rules violations have been handled in the past, NASCAR seems intent on demonstrating the old way of doing things are just that. Teams that play outside the lines are going to be hit and hit hard.
But such penalties prove bittersweet in a sport where cheating is not always black and white. It's a fine line to walk; the tougher these penalties get, the more steps NASCAR takes toward putting crew chiefs, teams and manufacturers in a small enough box where it's getting next to impossible to use creativity to their advantage.
Looking back on history, it's the innovations of these individual manufacturers and teams that have shined in several milestone victories, just as much as the drivers who wheel the cars.
Before the Car Of Tomorrow wing, a rear wing was added to the back of the Plymouth Superbirds in 1970, an invention that led to Pete Hamilton pulling one of the bigger upsets in Daytona 500 history. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR changed the rules to ban the invention and prevent pure domination on the part of the Plymouths; but it was too late, as the trophy was already busy taking up space on Hamilton's mantle.
The debut of other new cars from manufacturers, such as the Buick Regal in '81 and the Chevy Monte Carlo in '95, have led to dominance on the track regardless of the driver talent sitting in the seat. Of course, with the Car of Tomorrow, that type of innovation is gone; manufacturers have but one template to play with, a generic brand of car that doesn't come with any special tweaks.
As for the crews themselves, pushing the envelope is routine in a business where competition has never been closer.
Over at Hendrick Motorsports, the push to break new ground has led to being caught at times, while, at others, being applauded for finding the gray area within rules that were never clearly defined. After winning a Chase race at Dover back in the fall of '05, the No. 48 team was found to have special shocks that actually raised the rear of the car during the race, leading to improved aerodynamics within the vehicle.
Similar to what Hendrick is claiming this time around, the excuse at the time was that the rules didn't say you couldn't mess with shocks, so, NASCAR made rule modifications as soon as possible to ensure such a violation wouldn't happen again, but let the win stand as an "'attaboy" to a team which had figured out a loophole within the rules. The desired goal had been achieved: innovation led to on-track success, and pushing the competitive edge led to Johnson entering Victory Lane.
"It is no different than trying to find the proper shock package," explained Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, about building cars that drive NASCAR inspectors wild. "It is no different than the drivers trying to find a new line around a race track. We always try to make the cars a little bit better.
"The thing that you have to realize, as a competitor, if you are winning races, the guys that you are beating are working doubly as hard to try to catch you and to try to beat you. So, if you don't continue to try to evolve your race car, your setups, you are not going to stay on top of the curve."
In just two years, staying on top of that curve is developing a different meaning. More than ever before, that push the crew chief feels to build something unique has been cut off at the hip by a sport looking to establish rules that are clearly black and white. It's a consequence of NASCAR trying too hard to do the right thing.
In one sense, any type of cheating has to be penalized in order to establish the sport's legitimacy. Certainly, incidents such as Michael Waltrip's jet fuel fiasco at Daytona should be addressed quickly and efficiently. But in other cases, the difference between cheating and outright innovation isn't so blatant. And in a sport where drivers can't break records without the proper machinery underneath them, when does cutting off creativity in the name of breaking the rules go too far? How can Hendrick Motorsports induce a "blatant violation" in an area of the car that's open to interpretation?
In making these penalties, NASCAR needs to find the balance between the chicken and the egg; putting the win in the hands of the driver, all while protecting the rights of the crew chief to do his job. Judging by the way this season has gone, finding that fine line appears to be a continual work in progress.