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MORNING BRIEFING : JIM PELTZ / ON MOTOR RACING

Cheaters just keep driving on

October 23, 2008|JIM PELTZ | Peltz is a Times staff writer.

Brian France has his share of critics, but it was hard to dispute NASCAR's chairman when he once observed that cheating in stock car racing has "been going on forever. It will go on forever."

Even though France and other NASCAR officials have tried to stamp out cheating with tougher penalties -- especially with the Car of Tomorrow now being driven in the top-tier Sprint Cup Series -- the rules violations just keep on coming.

The latest: the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota driven by Brian Vickers.

NASCAR said Wednesday that when it inspected Vickers' car after Sunday's race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, it found the exterior sheet metal was thinner than required under the rules. NASCAR wouldn't elaborate, but the modification presumably made the car lighter, faster and more nimble aerodynamically, any of which is an advantage.

Vickers started that race 17th and finished 11th, which left him 15th in the Cup point standings.

Vickers' crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, and his car chief, Craig Smokstad, were suspended indefinitely. Hamlin also was fined $100,000. Vickers was docked 150 driver points. Red Bull's Dietrich Mateschitz was penalized 150 owner points.

Red Bull said it would not appeal.

"The necessary steps will be taken to rectify the situation, ensuring it does not happen again," team general manager Jay Frye said. Maybe not at Red Bull, but don't bet your mortgage it won't happen again.

Vickers joined a long list of drivers whose teams broke the rules in the last 18 months: reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

"NASCAR has over and over stated that they do not want us messing with this car," driver Greg Biffle, currently second in points to Johnson, said Wednesday. "Everybody has gotten their knuckles slapped with the ruler pretty hard."

But apparently not hard enough, given that the cheating goes on.

Which brings us to the question that always arises when cheating is discovered in NASCAR: Would NASCAR suspend a driver, even for one race, to deter others from doctoring their cars?

It's a step NASCAR officials have said they would not rule out. But for now, there seems to be a double standard at work.

By suspending crew chiefs and deducting points from drivers, NASCAR can rightly say justice has been dispensed. But the driver is back in action the following week, to the benefit of his team, his sponsors, his fans, track operators, TV networks carrying the races, and, yes, NASCAR as a whole.

Now, pretend for a moment that a Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt or Edwards was ordered to sit out next Sunday's race because his car didn't pass inspection at the last race.

Much of NASCAR's popularity is built on the individual popularity -- and brand recognition -- of its drivers. Some fans drive hundreds of miles to see their favorite driver. Or consider the corporate sponsors.

What if all their sales pitches and other hospitality events planned for a race were negated because the driver had been sent home? Maybe one day it will come to that. But for now, Vickers' fans can rest easy.

His crew chief Hamlin may be long gone, but Hamlin is replaceable, and Vickers will be in the No. 83 Toyota on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- and Red Bull will get the exposure it paid for and expects.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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