Strict limits

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

SONOMA, Calif. – Last month, No. 8 crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was suspended and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost points when their Car of Tomorrow failed inspection at Darlington.

Now with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's teams being hit with significant penalties Tuesday following failed COT inspections Friday at Sonoma, it becomes even more clear that NASCAR has no tolerance when it comes to bending the rules – or fenders, as it may be – on the Car of Tomorrow.

NASCAR officials said as much Friday at Sonoma when the failed No. 24 and 48 car inspections were first announced. And while they wouldn't quite acknowledge whether the penalty for a similar infraction with the old car would have been dealt with quite as severely, that has been the implication.

"What we're going to do, and what we've said along, is that we're going to keep control of this car," NASCAR spokesperson Ramsey Poston said. "We're going to make sure this car doesn't get twisted and doesn't get turned around. We want the emphasis to be on drivers, not on engineers.

"Engineers are always going to be part of this sport, but anything we can do to put winning and losing – competing – in the hands of drivers, we're going to do. And keeping this car in check is one of those things."

Indeed, drivers pay the bills. It's the sport's marquee names, not teams, that draw rabid interest. And keeping those drivers on a level playing field benefits the on-track product with the kind of parity that leads to happy fans who are willing to spend more.

But for many, it's also about the cars and teams. Many races aren't won solely as a result of driver ability, but also because one team's engine has more power (or better fuel mileage, like we saw at Sonoma) or another team's aero package is superior, and so on.

And some of those gains, especially when it comes to aero packages, mechanical grip and the like, are made by teams and crew chiefs who are willing to push the envelope. But pushing the envelope is what NASCAR is putting a stop to, which is a departure from how the sport used to be run.

"You get used to (the sport) changing so rapidly," said Alan Gufstafson, crew chief for Kyle Busch, a teammate of Gordon and Johnson's. "I look back three years ago when I started crew chiefing and how much work we would do to the bodies. And in three years that's gone from radical as you could get, which was a lot of fun (he laughs) to as controlled as you can get."

And that difference in control not only applies to past vs. present, but present vs. present when it comes to some races being run with the Car of Tomorrow and others not.

So is NASCAR treating infractions on the old car with a lighter touch?

"It seems that way. I'm not going to complain," Gufstafson laughed, "because any lax is good by me. If they are going to give us any room on the old car, then that's great."

The old car, maybe. But not the Car of Tomorrow.

In fact, NASCAR is being so strict with it that some believe they should just take the teams out of the equation altogether.

"If they don't want anybody to screw with the bodies, then give them to us," said No. 11 crew chief Mike Ford, suggesting that NASCAR could provide teams with cars rather than each organization having to build their own.

Ford, who saw the fenders in question on the Hendrick cars and was shocked that the alterations led to such stiff penalties, explains that with thousands of people building Cup cars every year, variations are inevitable. From his perspective, the problem is accentuated by unclear or nonexistent guidelines – especially in cases like the Hendrick cars, where the violation took place in an area outside those measured by NASCAR's inspection templates.

"There really aren't really any rules other than (the car) has to look a certain way," Ford said. "It's kind of like punishing your kid without explaining the rules."

And, perhaps, not treating all of your kids equally.

"You (can) go down through here and pick bigger items on every one of these cars than what was on those (24 and 48) cars," Ford said, motioning to the Cup garage.

All of this leaves crew chiefs in a difficult position, as they don't know what will fly and what won't.

"At the end of the day, if you fit all the templates and you do all the things they tell you you need to do, it makes it kind of hard to figure out what you're supposed to do if you fit all that stuff but it still could be wrong," said Todd Berrier, crew chief for Kevin Harvick's No. 29 car.

But perhaps a little common sense could be used as NASCAR continues to make itself clear in this regard: Don't mess with the COT. And if there are levels of messing that teams feel inclined to do, check with NASCAR first to see if those changes will fly.

It's a message that gets louder with each passing penalty, and one teams seemingly are beginning to accept.

"As far as the penalties go, I understand that NASCAR doesn't want to constantly chase these other areas like they have to (with the old car). They've put a lot of work and a lot of effort into (the COT)," Gufstafson said. "They've tried to build this structure to try to eliminate a lot of these things. If you mess with that structure, they don't take it very well.

"I don't necessarily blame them, but at the same time I don't blame the guys for looking for an advantage, either. … It's our job to try to get a technical advantage."

So with stiff penalties the norm for COT infractions, and with at least some unpredictability – from the points of view of crew chiefs, anyway – in the inspection and penalty process, do crew chiefs find themselves more on edge than usual?

"You are halfway scared coming to the race track because you don't know what's going to happen, what's going to change," Berrier said. "What kind of box you are going to get out of that you didn't know you were in? It kind of makes it a little touchy."

Ford and Tony Stewart crew chief Greg Zipadelli say the bigger issue than being on edge is needing to know how innovative they are allowed to be as their championship-contending teams try to win races week to week.

"You don't know where that limit is," Ford said. "Yeah, we can build cars and come to the race track and suck, but the defies the purpose of a race. I don't know where that line is."

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