Cheating is the Big Subject at Nascar Opening Weekend

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 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- The Daytona 500 was supposed to be a
celebration of all that's right with NASCAR -- the debut of Toyota
and much-heralded rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, and a new format that
emphasizes winning.
   Instead, this version of the Great American Race has been all
about a cheating scandal that forced NASCAR to throw six people out
of the garage long before Sunday's race.
   It's a drama that generated the mainstream attention NASCAR
desperately covets -- but for all the wrong reasons.
   "I think it gave the sport a black eye, (and) we've got to
recover from that," said driver Joe Nemechek. "I know this is the
most stressful Daytona 500 I've ever been in."
   That seemed true for almost everyone in the Nextel Cup garage.
It was a chaotic Speedweeks, with twists and turns, allegations,
bombshell announcements, emotion and apologies.
   "This week has been mindboggling," said three-time winner Jeff
Gordon. "I've been glued to the TV as much as anybody else waiting
to see what's going to happen. Between that and Anna Nicole Smith,
I just can't seem to get myself away from the TV."
   The words were barely out of his mouth when Gordon learned the
spotlight had shifted to him: The car he drove to victory in a
Thursday qualifying race had failed inspection, making him the
sixth driver to fall on the wrong side of NASCAR law.
   But before the label "cheater" could be stitched to Gordon's
name, NASCAR said the problem with his Chevrolet was unintentional
and simply stripped him of his starting position -- sending him back
to the 42nd spot for Sunday's season-opening race.
   It was a relative slap on the wrist for the four-time series
champion, especially in light of NASCAR's weeklong crackdown on
rule-breakers.
   The crew chiefs for 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth, Kasey
Kahne, Scott Riggs and Elliott Sadler all were kicked out Tuesday,
and NASCAR took the unprecedented step of docking the drivers
points before the season even started.
   The next day, the sanctioning body turned its attention to
two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, whose Toyota team
violated the code of the Nextel Cup garage by tampering with its
fuel. It led to indefinite suspensions for two of Waltrip's top
employees and a $100,000 fine -- the largest in NASCAR history.
   It was so embarrassing Waltrip almost packed up his car and
left. Instead, Waltrip will make his 21st start in the race.
There's been mixed reaction to his situation, with many rivals
believing he got off too easy and should have been suspended.
   Waltrip still has supporters, though, including two-time series
champion Tony Stewart.
   "Nobody wants him to go away by any means," Stewart said.
"He'll rebound from all this. I mean, it's a huge bump in the road
... but he's got a lot of friends in this garage area, and I'm sure
when it's all said and done, everything will be fine."
   It may never be fine for Toyota officials, who were humiliated
by Waltrip's team in the Japanese automaker's highly anticipated
Nextel Cup debut.
   Waltrip took pains to distance the incident from Toyota.
   "I just hope people are able to understand and separate Michael
Waltrip Racing from Toyota in this instance, because their
integrity and the way they go about things is totally opposite of
the position I've put them in," Waltrip said.
   Toyota could only hope that when racing began Sunday, the focus
would shift to on-track performance. Four Camrys are in the field,
including Waltrip's entire organization.
   They'll be hard-pressed to compete with the likes of Gordon,
Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the three drivers who have
established themselves as the ones to beat in the Super Bowl of
Racing.
   Whoever wins will get an extra five points, just one of the
changes this season. The win also will be good for bonuses when the
Chase begins -- for every victory scored during the
"regular-season," a driver will get a 10-point cushion to be used
in seeding the playoff field.
   A win for Stewart would just about complete his NASCAR resume.
The 500 is the only big race missing from a resume that includes
wins on all but four Nextel Cup tracks. After winning two
exhibition races leading up to the 500, Stewart liked his chances.
   "I feel like this is the best opportunity we've had so far to
win the 500," he said.
   The wildcard is Montoya, the Formula One defector embarking on
his first full NASCAR season. He ran a handful of races in last
year's trial run, but it's all for real come Sunday.
   The confident Colombian expects a solid finish in the 500, and
there's no reason to doubt him: He led 18 laps in a qualifying race
before a mechanical failure ended his run.
   "The guy is impressive," said crew chief Donnie Wingo.
"That's all you can say."

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