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DATE News (chronologically)
06/17/08
nassprint
NASCAR manufacturers feel-good finishes  It's odd sometimes how the NASCAR world churns along.

Let's get one thing straight, from this perch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is an amazingly valuable asset for NASCAR. There's simply no denying that fact.

The son of a racing legend, the grandson of a racing legend, with a down to earth everyman attitude that resonates with fans the sport over. NASCAR needs Earnhardt as much as Earnhardt needs NASCAR.

That said, it can sometimes get a little bit startling how the rules can change for certain individuals, in a number of ways, and also how oddly well timed those truly wonderful stories happen for NASCAR.

With the negative press of a $225 million sexual and racial discrimination lawsuit being filed against NASCAR hanging over the sport all weekend like thunder clouds in the sky after an overheated summer's day, somehow they got the feel-good story again when it all seemed so dark.

Not saying there was any monkey business, just saying it happens a lot in NASCAR [Editor's Note: A real lot, especially qualifying.  How can one forget Dodge's first race in Cup?  Both Dodges on the front row at Daytona - much hoopla for Dodge.  When the green flag dropped both went right to the back.]

It's a long running joke that NASCAR's rules are kept on a chalkboard, that much easier to change them on the fly. It seems the rules changed on the track Sunday when it came to the one that few would deny is NASCAR's golden child, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

According to a NASCAR.com story, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said that Earnhardt didn't violate a rule when he passed the pace car multiple times waiting for a green-white-checkered finish to the Sprint Cup Series LifeLock 400 Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Yet, the NASCAR rulebook expressly states that under caution cars may not pass the caution vehicle unless directed to do so by a NASCAR official and that any cars illegally passing the caution vehicle will be black flagged or re-positioned at the discretion of the NASCAR officials.

So how did it happen that Earnhardt didn't break a rule Sunday, and multiple times at that?

The reality is, Earnhardt didn't accidentally pass the pace car. It wasn't an "Oops, I wasn't paying attention there" moment.

Passing the pace car was giving Earnhardt a competitive advantage while he tried to coast, engine turned off, as much as possible under caution to ensure he'd have enough fuel to make it the final 2 laps.

Saving fuel was key at that moment for Earnhardt, who spent most of the late caution repeatedly starting and then killing his motor to give his car quick bursts of acceleration. The fact is, had he tapped the brakes to stay behind the pace car and run at the same speed it was running it would have meant that much more momentum lost, that much less time to coast and that much more fuel used before the decisive green-white-checkered finish.

No, it wasn't meaningless good times playing with the pace car driver fun for Earnhardt. It was tactical strategy that clearly, in black and white, went against the rulebook. No gray there, no bending the rules a little bit. Black and white, "cars may not pass the caution vehicle" and "will be black flagged" for doing so. 

No, the flag Earnhardt got after playing the rulebook harder than a set of drums during a moonlight gig at Club E wasn't black, but rather black and white. Checkered as they say, the winner's booty.

It was the feel-good story NASCAR needed after a bad press weekend. The 76-race winless streak was over for the most popular driver in the sport.

There's no denying that Earnhardt wields a power over NASCAR that few other drivers, if any, can claim. NASCAR CEO Brian France has as much as admitted on numerous occasions that a successful Dale Earnhardt Jr. equates to positives for the sport and clearly that means Earnhardt wins are good for the game.

But there's no way you can hold your nose long enough to not inhale just a little bit of the stink that rises when it feels like the rules have been massaged for the betterment of the story, for the advantage of one chosen individual.

Allowing someone as wildly popular as Earnhardt to flaunt the rules is a bad precedent to set when too many already believe the notion that NASCAR is in the business of manufacturing drama rather than fairly officiating it.

Then again, one of the oldest mantra's connected to NASCAR is: "If you ain't cheating you ain't trying."

You just want to believe that the cheating is going on outside of the public eye, not right there for millions to see. Courant.com

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