Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman talks with his crew in the garage after practice at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Friday, March 27, 2015. Rain delayed the practice and qualifying for Sunday's STP 500 Sprint Cup race. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber
March 31, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR levied harsh penalties against Ryan Newman's race team Tuesday after determining Richard Childress Racing manipulated the tires Newman used at Auto Club Speedway in California.

There had been rampant speculation throughout the Sprint Cup garage that teams were drilling tiny holes in their tires to allow air to escape during a race. The process is known as ''bleeding tires'' and NASCAR last week at Martinsville Speedway warned crew chiefs about the penalties that would be levied against any team caught.

Newman was one of four drivers to have his tires taken by NASCAR after the March 22 race at Fontana. The tires were sent for an independent inspection, and NASCAR said Tuesday that Newman's tires were found to have violated a rule that ''bars any modifications to the tire or wheel, including the valve stem hardware, that is used to release pressure.''

As a result, crew chief Luke Lambert was fined $125,000 and suspended for the next six races. The suspension also includes the All-Star race in May. Lambert was also placed on probation through the end of the year.

Tire technician James Bender and engineer Philip Surgen were also suspended six races and placed on probation through Dec. 31.

Newman and car owner Childress were docked 75 points each. The penalty dropped Newman, runner-up to Kevin Harvick in last year's championship finale, from sixth to 27th in the standings.

''NASCAR takes very seriously its responsibility to govern and regulate the rules of the sport in order to ensure competitive balance,'' said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president. ''We've been very clear that any modifications to race vehicle tires is an unacceptable practice and will not be tolerated.''

Torrey Galida, President of Richard Childress Racing, said the team was awaiting more information from NASCAR before deciding how to proceed.

''We understand the seriousness of the penalty. In fact, RCR has been one of the most outspoken opponents against `tire bleeding' since the rumors began to surface last season,'' Galida said in a statement. ''Once NASCAR provides us with the specific details of the infraction we will conduct a further internal investigation, and evaluate our options for an appeal.''

NASCAR has been periodically doing random checks of tires since late last season, when rumors surfaced that Harvick's team was bleeding tires to gain an edge. Harvick went on to win the championship, and NASCAR never revealed any infractions regarding the tires for Harvick or anyone else.

NASCAR then seized the tires of Harvick and Joey Logano following Harvick's win at Phoenix earlier this month. Both drivers cleared inspection with no issues.

But NASCAR then took the tires for Harvick, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, and RCR drivers Newman and Paul Menard after California. The tires were first inspected at NASCAR's R&D Center, then sent to an independent facility for testing.

As the garage area awaited the results, drivers and crew chiefs finally began talking about the issue in the open.

''There's a lot of talk, there's a lot of dialogue, there's a lot of rumors in the garage,'' said Jeff Gordon crew chief Alan Gustafson. ''So yeah, I think some people think something is going on.''

Although much of the speculation had surrounded Harvick's team, his tires have passed at least two inspections this season. The reigning series champion tweeted a link to the penalties against RCR within moments of it being announced.

There's a thought in the sport, though, that tampering with tires should lead to the harshest penalties possible.

Team owner Roger Penske said he told his teams they better not manipulate the tires - something he considers taboo.

`'That's one of the conditions, you talk about fuel, you talk about engine (being) oversized, you talk about fooling around with the tires - I would assume that's pretty much they kick you out (of NASCAR),'' Penske said. `'We all want to be competitive and we are all working on the edge all the time, but I think there are a few areas which are definitely over the line.''

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