Tom Bowles
Thursday June 10th, 2010

The NASCAR rulebook is known for more gray areas than George Clooney's hair. But amid NASCAR's habit of changing rules the second it makes them, three parts of competition have always been enforced: gas, engines and tires. Violations within that trio are the equivalent of a Class A felony, a trial of guilty until proven innocent, and NASCAR believes its penalties for such transgressions can't be lessened for extenuating circumstances.

One of Cup's lone remaining underdogs learned that the hard way this week, facing crippling consequences over Goodyears that had clearly been tampered with. Front Row Motorsports' No. 38 car driven by Travis Kvapil is facing a $100,000 fine, a loss of 150 driver and owner points and suspensions of its car chief, crew chief and main tire specialist for the next 12 weeks.

"We're disappointed," said owner Bob Jenkins, who filed an immediate appeal. "I think that NASCAR felt compelled to send a strong signal to the rest of the garage that they're not going to tolerate it. That's a devastating blow."

Officials literally stumbled upon the problem Sunday. During a Pocono rain delay, they noticed the team's No. 38 car had two rear tires going flat despite doing nothing but sitting on pit road. It didn't take long for them to find the reason why: "bleeder valves," holes in the valve cap that help reduce excess air pressure once the car comes up to speed.

How does that gain an advantage? If used right, they can help the handling by controlling the way tires are pressurized on restarts and over a green-flag run. But Pocono, known as a "Roval" for its road course characteristics, isn't the type of racetrack where bleeder valves would make a big difference in speed.

"There was no intent to do this," insisted Front Row General Manager Jerry Freeze, who said the team was conducting research to see where the tires came from. "We'd be the most inept crooks in the world to do this with rain coming down and the car going to sit under a car cover for an hour and a half [where the tires on it would simply sit there and lose air through the hole]."

"You certainly wouldn't do it on your two rear tires," added Jenkins. "Shame on us because we didn't have a quality control in place to be able to trace this lot of product. Having said all that, at the end of the day, there were valve caps on our car that had microscopic holes drilled in them."

That's the bottom line for NASCAR, sticking to the letter of the rulebook law in handing out the biggest punishment since Carl Long's $200,000, 200-point whopper for an oversized engine. Both penalties were under different circumstances, but share the same central theme: lack of intent and no true advantage gained on the racetrack. While Long's engine blew after just three laps in an exhibition race, Kvapil spent most of the Pocono event multiple laps down as one of the slowest cars in the field. He rallied to 22nd through NASCAR's wave-around rule and higher-than-expected attrition, including an eight-car car crash on the final lap -- not overall speed.

However, like Long, NASCAR is taking a hard-line stance with a rule that isn't taking underdog status into consideration. It's a killer for FRM, leaving a negative label on a David vs. Goliath organization simply trying to survive, an underfunded three-car effort whose lone claim to fame this season was rookie Kevin Conway's "Extenze" connection. Now the short-term and long-term future has been compromised, with Kvapil's Ford having to qualify on speed -- the penalty knocked the car outside the top 35 in owner points -- while his sponsorship search continues with the equivalent of a criminal record attached.

For now, FRM appears more optimistic than Long as it enters the appeals process, using this moment as a chance to grow and prosper. But it'll be difficult, if not impossible to win considering the black-and-white nature of this type of incident.

"I think this is an opportunity for our team to pull together, galvanize and show people what we're made of," Jenkins said. "The biggest concern I have -- more than the money, more than the points, more than anything else -- is the integrity of our race team. The entire time we've been in this sport, we've operated in relative obscurity. We don't cheat, and we don't do things to make waves. The only concern I have is to maintain the innocence of the people that were involved."

So did NASCAR overreach? The organization is between a rock and a hard place. Minimizing the penalty here sets a dangerous precedent for when one of the big teams gets caught with a similar infraction. Just because it didn't help doesn't erase the fact it was there. At the same time, it's the latest tough break for the sport's lower class as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

It's an interesting coincidence that since the start of 2008, the sport's Big Five teams (Childress, Penske, Hendrick, Gibbs, and Roush) have racked up a total of 150 points in penalties despite fielding almost half of the cars on the 43-car grid each week. Most would say that's an example of exceptional quality control, the reason these teams end each year on top in the championship Chase. Conspiracy theorists will tell you officials ignore certain advantages those teams possess, picking on the little guy while making sure not to bite the hand that feeds them.

For the underdogs, it's just another nail in the coffin even if they nailed it themselves. Jenkins is struggling to keep his team afloat, with sources claiming he's poured more of his own money into the program this year than any other. A failure to move up from the back of the pack could lead to reconsidering the depth of commitment as early as the end of this year. With NASCAR down to only 34 teams with funding to run the distance for every race this season, losing another three would be devastating to a 43-car grid.

Unfortunately, sympathy can only get you so far in this part of the NASCAR rulebook. For Front Row Motorsports, their biggest mistake, intentional or not, was stepping on the one section that's written in nothing but black and white.

• This weekend could prove a crucial turning point for Ford. Winless across NASCAR's top three series this year (0-for-35), Michigan is held a stone's throw from the main offices in Detroit and has served as a Blue Oval stranglehold through the years. Since 2000, Fords have won at MIS nine times, including two apiece with stars Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. If they can't run up front and compete for the win there ... where will they? Jobs could be on the line pretty soon, as personnel changes at powerhouse Roush Fenway Racing appear imminent if the slump doesn't break in the near future.

"Ford support has been as good as it's ever been," said owner Jack Roush this week, complimenting the hand that feeds him while sending an ominous warning to his organization. "The teams aren't getting it done."

• The latest charitable effort in NASCAR this month concerns three of their Most Popular Drivers. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are participating in a program called Pepsi Refresh, battling for a $100,000 grant from the soda company based on their ideas to help individual communities. Each has a unique take on how to help: Johnson wants to give bone marrow transplant patients financial relief, Gordon's looking to create a program to support the care, treatment and protection of abused children, while Earnhardt seeks to build a computer lab for elementary students. Of the three ideas, Earnhardt's hits the closest to home; he's looking to help out the Shepherd Elementary School in Mooresville, an area close to where he grew up.

"It's a groundbreaking effort, helping us fund great ideas that'll help us change the world," explained Pepsi Vice President Jeff Dubiel, whose company is awarding over $20 million to fund charitable projects within the program this year. "It's really designed to be an initiative that engages people and drives the power of ideas. Hopefully, the takeaway is it's so easy to make a difference. It's all about having a big idea, socializing that big idea, and putting that product into action."

Fans will choose the winner by voting on the Project they like best at NASCAR.com/PepsiRefresh through June 23.

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