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Puppet master

NASCAR, with a braintrust led by president Mike Helton, has a flexible rulebook that this season has left competitors scratching their heads and searching for consistency in officiating.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Sterling Marlin is tapped out.

He has racked his brain to think of yet another wacky way to test NASCAR's rule book -- he certainly came up with some doozies the past three weeks -- and thought of nothing.

"I don't know if there'll be any controversy this week or not," said Marlin, driver of the No. 40 Dodge. "We've about run out of things to do, I guess."

What a shame.

Over the past three weeks, NASCAR has kept drivers and fans guessing with quizzical interpretations of its purposely flexible rule book. Once again, the racing organization's credibility is being challenged. The joke this time is that NASCAR's rules are written on an Etch-a-Sketch.

Need a new one? Just shake.

"Before the TV contracts and long before NASCAR came into the public eye, they ran the business 'as is,' " said Dale Earnhardt Jr., third-generation driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet. "I don't think they thought about the kind of scrutiny that would come to them because of the decisions they made."

Apparently not.

Unlike other high-profile sports, NASCAR does not disguise its efforts to manipulate rules to create close competition. Whenever possible, it wants races to finish at full throttle, not under caution. It wants drivers representing every manufacturer to have a chance to win. Above all, it wants to put on a good show.

If that means tweaking the rules during the course of a season, so be it.

"NASCAR racing is unique," said Winston Cup director John Darby, one of several officials involved in sculpting and interpreting rules. "Part of the uniqueness of our sport is it's way beyond balls and strikes and outs. The multiples of situations that can happen during the course of a race are 10 times that of other sports."

All sports try to entertain. That's why the NBA has a shot clock. Why NFL quarterbacks can spike the ball to stop the clock. But imagine the Yankees going on a 15-game win streak, and Major League Baseball shaving 2 inches off Derek Jeter's bat. Or the NFL giving an extra timeout to a team trailing with two minutes left to make sure the field goal unit gets on in time.

"It's difficult to officiate any sport," said Ray Evernham, who owns a team that runs Dodges. "Whatever we do, just make it consistent -- that's from the rules to the calls. ... I hate to see NASCAR get blasted that they're fixing races. That's impossible. But if they'd put a little bit more planning into their race strategy, the way we do, they might have an answer for that stuff quicker."

Raceday decisions are made by a NASCAR braintrust that includes president Mike Helton, managing director of competition Gary Nelson, event director David Hoots, business operations manager Kevin Triplett and Darby. In each of the first three races this season, Marlin sent them scrambling.

At the opening Daytona 500, he was leading when a wreck with six laps left prompted officials to red-flag the race -- stop cars on the track -- while workers cleaned up. During the stoppage, Marlin climbed out of his car and ran around to the front to fix some fender damage. After lengthy consideration, NASCAR penalized Marlin for working on his car during the red flag.

The next week, Marlin was second to Matt Kenseth at Rockingham when a wreck occurred with five laps left. NASCAR did not stop the race, allowing Kenseth to take the checkered flag under caution. Two races, similar circumstances, different rulings.

Darby said the intricacies of racing on Daytona's 2.5-mile superspeedway and Rockingham's 1-mile oval made each decision correct for the circumstances. Competitors weren't so sure.

"We try to base some of our decisions on NASCAR being consistent," said Kevin Hamlin, crew chief for Kevin Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet. "It would be great to have something in black-and-white so we actually knew what would happen."

NASCAR is considering a green-white-checkered rule, similar to one the Craftsman Truck Series uses, to ensure green-flag finishes. But that could alter the length of races, something NASCAR is reluctant to do because it would affect teams' fuel-mileage strategies.

"There are so few times when fuel mileage is an issue, maybe once or twice a year," said Ty Norris, vice president at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "It would be different, and people just don't like change."

The red-flag flap isn't the worst of NASCAR's troubles this season.

At Rockingham, Kenseth's car failed post-race inspection when it measured nearly one-quarter inch too low. Kenseth was not stripped of the win or points, but crew chief Robbie Reiser was fined $30,000. Last season, Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief, Tony Eury, was fined $25,000 for a similar offense at Talladega. The message: failing inspection is expensive, but not costly.

Last week at Las Vegas, Marlin got away with speeding onto pit road, an offense that normally carries a 15-second penalty, because NASCAR failed to communicate the penalty to the official in Marlin's pit. NASCAR chose not to bring Marlin back onto pit road, saying it would have been too harsh a penalty under green-flag conditions.

Marlin won the race.

"I definitely think if somebody is speeding on pit road and NASCAR doesn't enforce it, that's pretty ridiculous," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "There was some way that NASCAR could have enforced it by the end of the race, whether it be the same penalty or a lesser penalty because of their mistake."

In its spare time, NASCAR has been trying to even up competition among Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet and Pontiac -- an increasingly difficult task as Winston Cup cars become more and more aerodynamically sensitive. At Daytona, NASCAR gave concessions to Ford and Dodge teams. Chevrolet teams, which had one car among the top 14 at Las Vegas, are complaining loudly.

It's part of the game.

"I'll be the first one to sit here and tell you that I hate the politics in this sport," Harvick said. "But, unfortunately, we're on the other side of this now and we have to start complaining and whining and acting like ... whatever.

"But that's how it is. It's not because NASCAR is trying to mess up the Chevrolet. They're trying to make everything more even and we're just on the bottom. They'll fix it."

They'll certainly try.

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