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Fri, Dec 19, 2014

WOODY: Cheating is part of NASCAR's history

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How long has cheating gone on in NASCAR?

From Day One, that’s how long.

The first NASCAR race was run in 1949 on a little dirt track near Charlotte, N.C., and the driver who crossed the finish line first, Glenn Dunaway, was disqualified for having altered springs on his stock car.

Fast forward to this season: Drivers for Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing have been hammered by NASCAR for various acts of mechanical malfeasance.

During his record run to five consecutive championships, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus was caught bending the rules so many times that some nicknamed him “Cheatin’ Chad.”

There are those who feel that the repeated infractions tarnished Johnson’s accomplishments. Did he win all those races and championships fairly, or did he have an illicit advantage?

In other sports, cheating is frowned on. In NASCAR it’s winked at.

There used to be a saying, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

In racing, they don’t like to call cheating, “cheating.”

They prefer the more euphemistic “fudging.”

I asked Darrell Waltrip about it one year at Daytona after his car flunked inspection and he got penalized.

Was he embarrassed by being caught cheating?

“It’s not cheating,” Waltrip replied, “It’s just trying to get an edge.

In football, if a lineman jumps off sides trying to get the jump on his opponent, it’s against the rules and his team is penalized. It’s an infraction, but it’s not called ‘cheating.’”

Sterling Marlin was once accused of mechanical malpractice during his dominant days at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedways. I asked Marlin about the accusations.

He denied that he or anyone on his team was bending the rules.

“Just call it ‘superior reading of the rule book,’ he said with a grin.

Waltrip and Marlin are both probably correct. It’s hard to judge stock car racing by the same measures as other sports because the former has such a large, gray area when it comes to what is mechanically permissible.

For example, a fairgrounds driver once was disqualified because his crew painted a bolt with dark paint when the rule stipulated it had to be covered with a clear finish.

Mark Martin lost a NASCAR Cup title one season to Dale Earnhardt due to a points penalty accessed over a car part that came straight from the factory. Nobody on his team tinkered with it in any way; they simply took it out of the box and put it on the car. But, it didn’t meet NASCAR specs, the team got penalized, and Martin lost what would have been his only championship.

Does NASCAR call it too close at times? Perhaps. If the NBA called every picky foul on every possession, every player would foul out by halftime. NFL referees could call holding on virtually every snap. If every holding call were called, games would never end.

In NASCAR’s defense, it has to call it fairly close in order to thwart the teams’ mechanical masterminds. If given an inch, some garage gurus would have their cars making moon landings.

Smokey Yunick is a classic example. NASCAR often suspected that the brilliant mad scientist of motorsports was cheating, but he generally managed to stay one step ahead of them.

The most famous incident occurred prior to a race when inspectors checked Yunick’s car for a suspected hidden fuel supply. They went over the car from bumper to bumper and even extracted the fuel cell and gas lines but could find nothing amiss.

Yunick, deeply offended by the accusation, tossed his dismantled gas tank in the back seat, fired up his fuel-less car, and drove away.

All NASCAR could say as he rode out of sight was, “Oh, fudge.”
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