Time To Eject Nascar Drivers?

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Suspending a crew chief for the Daytona 500 hasn't seemed to deter teams from cheating. Maybe it's time to throw out the driver, too.

Three teams failed inspection Sunday during qualifying for the biggest race of the season. If it's determined they deliberately skirted the rules, it will prove teams didn't get the message when NASCAR sent crew chief Chad Knaus home after cheating while preparing Jimmie Johnson's car a year ago.

But what lessons could they have learned? With Knaus banned from the track for four weeks, Johnson still won the Daytona 500 _ the Super Bowl of racing _ and a second event two weeks later.

Then he capped the season by winning the Nextel Cup title.

So don't blame the crew chiefs for Kasey Kahne, 2003 cup champion Matt Kenseth and new Toyota team owner Michael Waltrip _ the three drivers who failed to make it past NASCAR's inspectors Sunday.

Blame NASCAR instead.

Crew chiefs get suspended, drivers get fined points and cash, but the infractions continue to pile up. Sure, series officials scowl in the inspection bay, and president Mike Helton looms like a gun-toting sheriff in a bad western movie.

Spokesman Jim Hunter insists NASCAR is fed up with the rule breakers. Still, cheating also is celebrated as a quaint piece of NASCAR culture. If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin', right?

If NASCAR is serious about ending cheating, suspending the driver _ the team's most high-profile member _ just might do it.

Outrageous? Maybe. But suspending a driver for a crew's cheating would force the sport's biggest stars to keep a closer eye on those who put their race cars together.

It's one thing to suspend a crew chief. It's quite another to send home a star who keeps fans in the stands and glued to the TV.

NASCAR argues suspending drivers would punish fans. But if fans got mad about a driver's suspension, it would create more pressure on teams not to cheat.

Because today's NASCAR has progressed so far from the days when a driver built his own car and changed his own engine, officials say the crew chief, not the driver, should pay the price when things aren't right.

"We have someone who we know is in control of the mechanical part of the race car, and that's the crew chief," competition director Robin Pemberton said. "For now, we are content going down the avenue of holding that person responsible."

In more cases than not, it's plausible the driver doesn't have a clue what his crew is doing. Maybe that's the problem.

Another problem: Where's the line between flagrant cheating, working the margins of the rule book and a simple mistake?

NASCAR isn't even sure the three teams questioned Sunday were cheating.

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, had a suspicious substance in the intake manifold of his new Toyota Camry that NASCAR officials didn't recognize. So they seized the part and shipped it back to North Carolina, where a team of inspectors spent Monday examining it.

Waltrip's car also was impounded, and NASCAR hasn't decided when _ or even if _ it will give the Camry back. Once officials figure out what the substance was, NASCAR will have a hard time figuring out why the substance was there and whether it was put there on purpose.

Same goes for Kahne and Kenseth, who had holes in their cars' wheel wells. Was it cheating or a careless mistake?

Ray Evernham, who owns Kahne's car, said Monday the holes were a minor infraction that doesn't qualify as cheating.

"NASCAR saw the holes in inspection and told my guys to tape them up. They were taped, but the tape came off," Evernham said. "I don't know why they made such a big deal about it. It was not an aerodynamic device or something that was built to fool them."

Still, Evernham expects crew chief Kenny Francis to get hit with a suspension when NASCAR hands out its penalties.

Pemberton said NASCAR still was discussing Monday how to properly punish cheaters this season but indicated the penalties would be tough. After Knaus and Slugger Labbe, then Dale Jarrett's crew chief, were suspended early last season, Pemberton said teams were on their best behavior.

Now it's time to get the garage back in order. Again.

"It looks like we've got to get their attention," he said.

Sending drivers home certainly would do it.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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