Plenty of drama at Daytona |

Plenty of drama at Daytona

Roger Diez
Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

The green flag hasn’t flown for the start of the 2007 Daytona 500, but the race has already provided more drama than a month’s worth of soap operas.

Five crew chiefs will be watching the race on television, banned for two, four or an “indefinite” number of races, and for the first time in NASCAR history five drivers and car owners will start the season in the minus column in points. Those caught cheating right after NASCAR CEO Brian France announced a tougher stance on penalties in his “state of the sport” address must feel like the guy who had a few cocktails and hopped in his car just after the Sheriff announced a DUI checkpoint a block from the bar.

Then, just to continue the theme, Thursday Duel winner Jeff Gordon’s car was found to be too low after the race. Gordon got off with a relative slap on the wrist, merely being relegated to the 42nd starting spot in today’s big race.

There’s no truth to the rumor that UPS delivered a samurai sword and instructions for its use from Toyota’s headquarters to Michael Waltrip Racing’s compound, but it’s probably just as well that Michael managed to race his way into the 500 in Thursday’s qualifying races, using teammate David Reutimann’s backup car. In fact, all three of the Waltrip Camrys made the race; Waltrip in the qualifier, Reutimann on his qualifying time, and Dale Jarrett with a past champion’s provisional.

Dave Blaney, driving for Bill Davis Racing, was the only other Toyota to make the starting field for the 500. Unfortunately, Team Red Bull Toyota driver A.J. Allmendinger was victimized by Robby Gordon in the first qualifying race and teammate Brian Vickers, along with Toyota drivers Mike Skinner and Jeremy Mayfield, who also came up short.

It remains to be seen how Matt Kenseth will fare without crew chief Robbie Reiser, or how the Evernham Dodges will do with all three crew chiefs sitting Daytona out, as well as Waltrip missing crew chief David Hyder. Remember, last year Chad Knaus was benched for cheating but driver Jimmy Johnson won the 500 as well as the championship, which only goes to show how deep the Hendrick organization’s bench is.

In case you’ve been living in a cave somewhere and didn’t hear about it, all the aforementioned crew chiefs were suspended and fined, while the associated drivers and owners were each assessed a points penalty. Four races, $50,000 and 50 driver and owner points, and loss of qualifying times were the penalties for Kenseth’s Roush team and Kasey Kahne’s Evernham squad, because of aerodynamic irregularities discovered after qualifying.

Two races, $25,000 and 25 points were assessed against the Evernham teams of Scott Riggs and Elliott Sadler for the same reason. These penalties were less severe and the teams were allowed to keep their qualifying times because the infractions were found and corrected prior to qualifying.

Michael Waltrip’s team committed the most heinous crime, getting caught with doctored fuel prior to qualifying. The car was confiscated and Hyder fined $100,000 and suspended indefinitely, while 100 point penalties were issued to both driver Waltrip and owner Buffy Waltrip.

If NASCAR was trying to get everybody’s attention, it certainly succeeded. Of course, some of us kind of miss the more freewheeling days of yesteryear, when creative cheating was the highest art form in racing.

As Smokey Yunick is rumored to have said, “Tighter rules just make cheating more expensive.” Well, as Michael Waltrip will attest, $100,000 and 100 points is definitely expensive.

Today’s race promises to live up to all the pre-race excitement. You’ve got a fresh-faced rookie (David Gilliland) and a grizzled veteran (Ricky Rudd) starting on the front row in team cars; the past champion, who didn’t make the Chase last year (Tony Stewart) winning the Bud Shootout and the first of the Duels and aiming to become the first driver to sweep at Daytona; multiple 500 winners Jeff Gordon, who took the second Duel only to be sent to the back for cheating, the disgraced Michael Waltrip, who raced his way into the 500, and Dale Jarrett, who is starting last on a past champion’s provisional. If you can’t make a Hollywood epic out of that cast and storyline, you’re just not trying.