Waltrip's crew chief thrown out for illegal substance
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The Daytona 500 is a wreck before it even gets started.
A cheating scandal that had already brought down four teams now has ensnared another — that of two-time winner Michael Waltrip — tarnishing NASCAR's signature race and Toyota's highly anticipated debut.
"We've got people's attention now," NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said Wednesday.
Waltrip lost his crew chief and team director right before Sunday's Super Bowl of racing. The two were suspended indefinitely after an illegal substance was found during inspection for the season-opener.
Waltrip, docked 100 points, will be allowed to participate in Thursday's races that determine the field for the 500.
David Hyder, his crew chief, was thrown out of the garage and fined $100,000. Team director Bobby Kennedy also was kicked out.
Waltrip said he was "so sad and embarrassed" but tried to shift blame to an unidentified individual within his team.
"This is not the action of an organization, a manufacturer or a sponsor," Waltrip said in a statement. "This was an independent act done without consent or authorization from me or any of my executive management team."
Waltrip spent all day Wednesday meeting with NASCAR officials, who publicly paraded Hyder and Kennedy through the garage as they were escorted out. Waltrip's Toyota Camry was also on display as inspectors ripped pieces out from under the hood.
His team worked furiously to prepare a backup car, but it had yet to clear inspection and Waltrip got no practice time Wednesday. He will be allowed to race the backup Thursday, if it passes inspection.
Waltrip's penalties came one day after the crew chiefs for 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs and Elliott Sadler all were suspended. All five drivers also were docked points in an unprecedented move by NASCAR, which never before had taken points before the season.
NASCAR officials would not reveal what they found in Waltrip's intake manifold, but a person with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press it was a property contained in jet fuel. The person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details.
Pemberton said only that the substance was not jet fuel itself.
"We're not going to go into any great detail, but it was a foreign substance that we feel should not have been inside the engine, and we'll leave it at that," Pemberton said. "I don't think this is anything that we've seen in the recent past."
The substance was found during the inspection of Waltrip's Camry before Sunday's qualifying session. NASCAR seized the part and shipped it back to North Carolina for analysis.
Adding the substance, described by NASCAR as an oxygenate, would boost the octane in the fuel, thus making the engine run better at higher horsepower. It was believed by NASCAR that the substance worked its way through the fuel system.
Pemberton said the substance was discovered when a NASCAR official reached his hand into the manifold to feel for loose parts.
"When he brought his hand out, there was a substance on there that was unlike anything he had ever seen in the inspection line before," Pemberton said.
Some rival team members said they thought NASCAR should have taken away more points from Waltrip's team, because in a sport where cheating is common, tampering with the fuel is a rarity.
"Throughout the garage area I think everybody knows you don't mess around with tires, you don't mess around with the engine, the restrictor plates," Pemberton said. "Those things are very taboo."
The last penalty NASCAR issued for a fuel-tampering violation was harsher than Waltrip's. In May 2000, driver Jeremy Mayfield and team owner Michael Kranefuss each was penalized 151 points for a fuel-related violation found at Talladega Superspeedway.
"When it comes to that area, points need to be equal, at least as bad as it was for Jeremy," said Dale Earnhardt Inc. vice president Richie Gilmore.
Gilmore wasn't surprised, however, that Waltrip still will be allowed to race.
"This day and age, with the sponsors and money that are in the sport, you can see why they didn't send him home," Gilmore said. "But the penalty on the points should have been heavier than 100 points."
Waltrip started his own three-car team this season with Japanese automaker Toyota. The Camrys have struggled with speed since January testing, and Waltrip is not assured a starting spot in the field for Sunday's season-opening race.
The cars he fields for Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann both passed inspection. Jarrett is assured a spot in Sunday's race because he's a past series champion; Waltrip and Reutimann must race their way in Thursday.
"This is not the way you want to enter the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, by any means," said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development. "But circumstances are what they are, and we'll support NASCAR in any way we can to help to help them find a resolution to the issue."