Friday, February 22, 2008
Updated: February 27, 5:10 PM ET
Gordon says penalties against himself, crew chief could jeopardize team
By David Newton
FONTANA, Calif. -- Robby Gordon says the future of his Sprint Cup organization could be in jeopardy if the penalties NASCAR levied after the Daytona 500 stand up under appeal.
That appeal is scheduled to be heard March 5th.
Gordon was fined 100 driver and 100 owner points for having an unapproved nose cover on his Dodge Charger. Crew chief Frank Kerr was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races.
The penalties have been placed on hold until the National Stock Car Commission hears the appeal, which means Gordon remains ninth in points after his eighth-place finish at Daytona and Kerr will remain on his pit box.
Had Gordon not appealed he would be 41st in points heading into Sunday's race at California Speedway. If he couldn't work his way back into the top 35 over the next four races -- the first five races are set on last year's points -- he would be in a position of having to qualify for races.
"A hundred could be life-threatening to our team," Gordon said before Friday's first practice. "If this sticks I don't know what our plan will be. I think [IRL and CART are] back together, and I think I can drive one of those cars."
Gordon, the only driver and owner of a single-car team in NASCAR's premier series, said the perception the penalty left is particularly disturbing because he does not have sponsorship for the entire season.
"What's really awkward is it's now putting us in a position where publicly we're out there on the edge because we're going to Atlanta with a car un-sponsored," Gordon said. "And NASCAR put us in a position to make the world look like we're cheating.
"Now they're putting us in a severe business situation as well."
Gordon formally issued his appeal to NASCAR on Thursday, arguing there was no intent to bend the rules because the part issued was a clerical error by Dodge's distributing warehouse, Evernham Performance Parts [EPP].
He also noted that the team switched from Ford to Dodge only two weeks before Daytona, and that the warehouse was told by representatives of Dodge that the part had been approved when it was distributed even though it was not.
NASCAR officials argue that they don't consider intent when it comes to technical violations in the body of the Car of Tomorrow.
"We're going to jail for a crime we didn't commit," Gordon said. "It's almost like putting yourself in the position where somebody steals your car, robs a bank, and because it was your car you're going to jail.
"I don't think this is a fair penalty and obviously we'll have to appeal it."
Gordon's primary sponsor, Jim Beam, for this week's race issued a letter to NASCAR president Mike Helton, director of competition Robin Pemberton and series director John Darby expressing its support.
"As a proud sponsor of Robby Gordon for the last four years, Jim Beam believes that the 100-point penalty handed down by NASCAR is excessive," said Thomas J. Flocco, the CEO and president of Beam Global Spirits and Wine Inc.
"Robby's team earned an honest eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 ... not because of rule violations. As your own officials have stated, there appears to have been no intent to circumvent the rules in order to gain a competitive advantage. It was an honest mistake that was corrected before the race."
Flocco added that he hopes the commission, once it has heard all the facts, will reverse the decision or at least reduce the penalty.
Gordon has plenty of support in the garage as well. Most agree the penalty was too severe, that the manufacturer is more to blame than the team.
Gordon said Chrysler chairman Bob Nardelli has gone to NASCAR president Mike Helton to explain Dodge made the mistake.
"The severity of the penalty doesn't just blow us away, it blows a lot of other crew chiefs in the garage away that are very surprised as steep as it is," Gordon said.
Ray Evernham, the minority owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports that supplies technical support to Gordon's team, said the penalty is wrong.
"It's dead wrong," he said. "To me that makes zero sense. To penalize the team for a mistake the buyer made ... It's something that needs to be worked out between Dodge and NASCAR."
The part in question was built by the company Five Star, which produces the nose and other parts for all manufacturers. The nose then was shipped to EPP, which sent it out to Robby Gordon Motorsports.
"And Dodge tells us it's OK to distribute these parts," Evernham said. "From my understanding, the paperwork came from Dodge saying this nose was approved and it was given to Robby."
A top Dodge official said at least 12 of the noses were built and at least half were sent out to teams. Evernham said at least one car in the GEM inventory was found with the unapproved nose.
Robbie Loomis, the vice president of racing operations at Petty Enterprises, said his organization received two of the unapproved parts for observation until the part gets NASCAR approval. He added that they were cut in half to make sure they didn't get on any cars.
"In Robby's situation, in fairness to him, he just did a deal to become a Dodge two weeks before," Loomis said. "It was just a communication breakdown. There are so many pieces to the car, it's easy for that stuff to happen."
Kerr said the nose fit NASCAR's template and that it simply was a "little character line on the grill work" where the nose and headlight stickers go that were out of place.
He said the part numbers matched the legal nose with the exception of a dash A at the end.
"We got the noses on Wednesday and the truck left for Daytona that following Tuesday," Kerr said. "We were just lucky to get them on there and get it painted and get a motor bolted in there."
He added that the nose created no aerodynamic advantage.
"We were just trying to get to the racetrack," Kerr said. "A wind tunnel was the farthest thing away from our thoughts. Our wind tunnel was spraying the paint on there and saying, 'Yeah, it looks good.'
"Yes, there was an infraction. Was there intent? No."
Jeff Burton, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, feels for Gordon and NASCAR.
"NASCAR is in a tough spot there," he said. "I'm sure in the panic to get everything switched over I'm sure it was an honest mistake. But at the end of the day NASCAR can't concern itself if it's an honest mistake or not. If you break your rule, you break the rule."
The No. 8 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. received the same penalty last year for a wing violation at Darlington. The No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon and No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson also received the same penalty for a nose violation at Sonoma, Calif.
"It's hard to believe you don't know what's on your car," Johnson said. "That's the point of view NASCAR has. We had an issue where there wasn't even a template made. They didn't like the way it look and they got nailed.
"That's why you hear over and over crew chiefs talk about how scared they are and nervous they are about their positions, their jobs."
Gordon and Kerr are more nervous about the future of their team, which consists of about 30 people with truck drivers and parts runners. They reiterated that the violation was discovered before qualifying or the race, and the car that finished eighth was completely legal.
"The penalty doesn't fit the crime," Kerr said. "OK, it was the wrong nose. We changed it before it ever hit the racetrack. It's almost like they want the little single-car team to disappear."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A hundred could be life-threatening to our team. If this sticks I don't know what our plan will be. I think [IRL and CART are] back together, and I think I can drive one of those cars.