SONOMA, Calif. – The Hendrick guys claim they didn't see this one coming.
When NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 and Jeff Gordon's No. 24 cars Friday at Infineon Raceway after they failed inspection, if was because the fenders on their Cars of Tomorrow had unapproved changes.
NASCAR has said that it would not tolerate overly creative COT setups, and demonstrated that commitment by docking 100 points from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and suspending his crew chief for six races after their No. 8 Chevy failed inspection at Darlington last month.
So shouldn't No. 24 crew chief Steve Letarte and No. 48 chief Chad Knaus have known better?
They thought they did.
The modifications made to their cars actually fell in areas not measured by NASCAR's inspection templates, making the Hendrick principals believe they had room to work there.
Clearly, they were wrong.
Not only were the cars parked for practice and qualifying Friday and forced to start from the back of the pack in Sunday's road course race, Gordon and Johnson each were penalized 100 driver points Tuesday, and Knaus and Letarte were suspended for six races apiece. Fines also were imposed and owner points were docked.
The NASCAR garage always has been a place of innovation, of pushing the envelope. Crew chiefs will try to slip things by NASCAR officials in an effort to improve their car's performance. Sometimes it works, often they get caught.
In the past, a fine and maybe a 25-point penalty would be in order, which many saw as an acceptable risk. But penalties have risen in the last couple years and escalated even more with NASCAR's strict guidelines around the new Car of Tomorrow.
With that, the risk/reward ratio has been skewed. Crew chiefs still must look for an edge, but with such stiff penalties, is it worth trying?
"Well, obviously at this point, no," Knaus said Friday, after the cars were parked. "But (trying to find ways to improve the car) is something that we do."
Knaus and Co. maintain that had they thought for a second the fender adjustments they were making might fall outside the rules, they wouldn't have gone ahead with them.
"If anybody thought what happened (Friday) would happen, I'm sure we wouldn't have put ourselves in that position," said Alan Gufstafson, crew chief for Johnson and Gordon's teammate Kyle Busch, whose car passed inspection.
So the question becomes, could they have known?
According to NASCAR, the answer is yes.
Teams are brought to NASCAR's research and development center early in the year and told what will and won't fly. They also are given templates and other data to guide them in building their cars.
But in addition, NASCAR says it makes its officials readily available to address team's questions ahead of time so situations such as the one at Infineon Raceway never play out.
"We spend four days a week together. The garage is a very open place. NASCAR officials are everywhere. We're very visible, we're very accessible," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of corporate communications. "Absolutely, if a team came to us to say, 'Would it be OK to do this?' we would give them an answer. We are here to work with the teams."
It's an opportunity Hendrick officials did not take, simply because they believed they didn't need to.
"From our standpoint, we felt we understood what the process was as far as inspecting these cars and what was OK and not OK," said Doug Duchardt, Hendrick Motorsports' vice president of development. "Obviously it would be irresponsible of us to take excessive risk and put ourselves in this position; we felt like we could work in between those templates."
With Knaus having been suspended at the start of the 2006 season, some critics may not buy that explanation, instead believing this is just another example of a Hendrick team trying to skirt the rules.
And while some crew chiefs believe the infraction wasn't worthy of the penalty and think there may be more to the story than NASCAR and Hendrick have explained – though Duchardt maintains that Hendrick's great success with the Car of Tomorrow this season has led its cars to be heavily scrutinized by NASCAR (as a result of standard inspection procedures around top-finishing cars), which had found no problems at all with the cars before Friday &ndash, some do understand where the Hendrick teams were coming from.
"If (the 24 and 48) thought for sure that they did anything that was out of the ordinary, I'm sure they would have had (an official) come by and look at it," said Todd Berrier, crew chief for Kevin Harvick's No. 29 Chevy. "We've done it a million times and we'll do it again."
Mike Ford, crew chief for Denny Hamlin's No. 11, could empathize with the Hendrick crew chiefs.
"We're right next to them in the garage area and I looked at (the fender) when they were cutting it off and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding, right?,' " he said. "It's strictly a judgment call."
In addition to Berrier – who has been suspended by NASCAR for rules violations around car setups and modifications – Gufstafson and Tony Stewart's crew chief Greg Zipadelli were among those who said they check with officials ahead of time. That certainly is how NASCAR would prefer the process work.
"We want the cars to be legal when they go through the inspection line the first time," Poston said. "We don't like having to go through the penalty phase, but if we need to do it, we will."
There is a belief that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and some teams perhaps aren't keen on seeking approval from officials on car setups, which potentially could curb their efforts to push forward with innovative setups. In addition, it's questionable whether checking with NASCAR would even help in all circumstances.
The problem for some crew chiefs is that it still isn't clear what NASCAR will and won't allow.
"I asked (Nextel Cup director) John Darby, 'Did (the 24 and 48) fit all the templates?' He said, 'Yes,' " Berrier said. "That makes it kind of hard for me to know if I want to come to the race track or not because you don't know what's going to happen if you fit all the templates. For it to fit all the templates – that's what we've got them for."
And once you go beyond what the templates can measure, that's where problems arise.
"It's strictly a judgment issue," Ford said. "Taking an area that's not templated and saying, 'OK, well it just doesn't look right' and fining someone and throwing them out for a day – there's not one car here, if you were to realistically measure, who wouldn't be in the same boat."
Ford expressed concern that teams failing to build their cars within template specifications usually are given another chance to pass inspection (though potentially with penalty), but in the case of Gordon and Johnson, the teams weren't allowed back on track until the following day.
"You have an area that's not templated and they say, 'No, that's no good' and sit you out," Ford said. "That's the hardest thing as a crew chief – being aggressive enough to perform without going over the edge when you don't know where the edge is."
Not knowing where the edge is – or simply believing they weren't anywhere near it – is where these two Hendrick teams found themselves last weekend at Sonoma. And while their explanation does seem reasonable to some, the fact is, from NASCAR's perspective, they broke the rules.
So would any sort of believable explanation mitigate the penalty process?
"No," Poston said. "We're going to make the judgments on penalties based on what we see at the track and the information we have from the car."
Poston added that teams do have the opportunity to appeal penalties – which, in this case, were relatively stiff.
Stiff enough to get teams into the habit of checking with NASCAR officials regularly – perhaps before every race weekend, even – on potential setups on a regular basis?
To that suggestion, Gufstafson laughed.
"It may start coming to that," he said.