As NASCAR's Chase nears, teams face growing temptation to cheat
NASCAR's emphasis on winning this season has increased the temptation to cheat
Teams sometimes cheat because of the impact a lack of publicity has on sponsors
With NASCAR reluctant to take away wins, what's the incentive not to cheat?
No matter their position -- car owner, crew chief, driver or crew member -- each person likely will face the same dilemma in the 10 races before the field for NASCAR's title hunt is set:
Should they cheat to make the Chase?
The final two spots to the Chase go to drivers with the most victories between 11th and 20th, and only one driver in that group has a win so far. That leaves at least the final spot dangling. A win likely will be the only way many drivers outside the top-10 can contend for a title. Thus, some could rationalize that the reward of cheating is worth the risk.
"I think you're on to something,'' said Andy Petree, a former car owner and championship crew chief and now ESPN analyst. "This year, [NASCAR] put more [of a] premium on winning than ever before. That's putting more pressure and more temptation on teams to push the limit to win. They did it for the incentive for the teams to roll the dice on pit calls and drivers to take more chances, but those chances don't stop on the track. They might take chances off the track.''
Many will cringe at the word cheat. They will prefer to describe skirting the rules as being "innovative'' or "pushing the limits'' or "working in the gray areas.'' Whatever helps them sleep at night. The point is they're trying to do something that NASCAR is against, whether it's implicit or written in the rule book.
"You want your guys pushing every edge of the rule book,'' points leader Carl Edwards said.
Not everyone understands that notion, which is a part of NASCAR lore. Before he was placed on the President's Council on Physical Fitness last year, Edwards had to explain the idea of breaking the rules to a White House staffer.
"I am like, 'No, you don't understand, this is auto racing,''' Edwards said he told them. "'The guys at the shop build the most trick thing they can and bring it to the race track. I hop in and drive it, and if you run well or some part falls off or the heights aren't right, then it looks like we were cheating but that is just part of the sport.'''
Edwards' opinion is not that of a renegade. It's a belief shared throughout the garage, one rich in stories about getting away with something.
"I always told my crew chiefs if you are going to push something or you are going to cheat, run it by me,'' Petree said. "If I give you an OK and we get caught, I'll pay the fine. If you don't, then you pay it. I've had it happen before where they had to pay it because I didn't approve it.''
Understand that while this is a moral question, there's much more to it. Competitors have complained that if they're not in the Chase they feel all but ignored by the media during the final 10 races. If they're not being covered, their sponsors aren't receiving publicity. While companies don't want the negative publicity with a team cheating, they also don't want to be overshadowed. Millions of dollars could be at stake for teams.
"If I've got a sponsor that says, 'If you don't make the Chase, we're done' ... that's pretty desperate,'' Petree said. And that would require desperate measures.
For every reward, though, there is risk.
NASCAR has intensified its inspection policy in recent years and been unsympathetic when it's discovered violations. Series officials have a greater chance of finding an illegality in post-race inspection, which takes place both at the track and at its research and development facility in Concord, N.C.
NASCAR always takes the winning car and at least one more to its R&D shop for a detailed analysis. It's where officials discovered that Clint Bowyer's car failed inspection two days after winning at New Hampshire in the last year's opening Chase race. Team officials contended that a tow truck, which pushed Bowyer's out-of-fuel car to Victory Lane, damaged Bowyer's car and caused it to not to pass inspection. NASCAR didn't agree and punished the team by docking 150 points, suspending two team members and fining the crew chief $150,000.
Yet, Bowyer's win remained.
NASCAR does not like to take wins away, so what would happen if a team won a race that could help it get in the Chase -- and failed inspection? Would the win count? If so, then it leads to the question of why should it count? Why shouldn't the first legal car get credit for the win and have a chance to make the Chase?
Certainly, NASCAR could find a way to penalize a winning team so that the victory means nothing. Yet, even if NASCAR docked a team all its points, what's the difference between that and finishing last, which is worth one point? Sure, NASCAR can suspend crew chiefs, car owners, crew members and so forth, but what is really the incentive not to cheat? If a team has an outside chance of making the Chase and is caught cheating, then what did it lose?
It's not easy to win a Cup race; any little edge could help. Look at how pit calls and track position have played critical roles in races this year. If one advantage, even if illegal, is enough to help get a driver out front, it might be hard for a team not to try it. Especially a team that hasn't won lately. Nearly all the drivers between 11th and 25th in the points have winless droughts that stretch back to last year, or in many cases, beyond last season.
With a chance to make the Chase, gain publicity for sponsors and possibly challenge for a championship, the temptation could be great enough that at least one person or one team will try something illegal to score a win between now and mid-September.
"I think you're right,'' Petree said. "I think somebody might. I know it probably wouldn't be me. I'm a little more conservative than that. There's probably somebody out there desperate enough, crazy enough, bold enough, brave enough, whatever you want to call it, to try it.
"But I think NASCAR will be all over it. It would not be pretty.''
Assuming, of course, the team gets caught.
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.