Commentary

Give All-Star crew chiefs a free pass

Updated: May 18, 2012, 11:24 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't known for his aggressive driving style. He at times gets criticized for being too polite, to politically correct, for not taking more chances. Many fans want him to be more like the intimidator his father was.

But in Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race, NASCAR's most popular driver plans to push "as far as you can push it" -- assuming he makes the main event -- even if that means knocking another driver out of the way on the last lap to capture the million-dollar prize.

"If you can get to a guy's bumper on the last lap, he's going to be in trouble," Earnhardt said on Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "With the amount of money on the line, how big this race is, if you get turned around on the last lap for the win, I don't think you can hold too much of a grudge.

"There is a bit of a code when it comes to particular races such as this, that no matter how dirty it gets at the end, you've got to kind of let it go. There's just too much at stake."

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireIf Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, makes the All-Star Race, NASCAR's most popular driver vows to do whatever it takes to get to Victory Lane. His crew chief, Steve Letarte, won't have as much creative license.

As Kurt Busch said when comparing NASCAR to the WWE, this race is what makes brothers "go at it," referring to his 2007 incident with Kyle Busch in the final segment.

So if drivers can have at it in this no-points, no-holds-barred event, why not loosen the grip on the crew chiefs as well? Why not let them build the fastest, most-tricked-up machines they can to get their driver into Victory Lane?

Take them out of that tight box they constantly complain about and let them test their ingenuity.

Crew chiefs gone wild, so to speak.

No telling what we might see. Somebody might come here with a version of Richard Petty's 1970 Plymouth Superbird with the super big wing. Somebody might bring an engine bigger than the beefed-up one Petty used to beat Darrell Waltrip at CMS in 1983.

Somebody might find the blueprints to the T-Rex car Ray Evernham built for Jeff Gordon to dominate the 1997 All-Star Race.

It would be, as NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said, "insane."

But don't you think Rick Hendrick would love to build Earnhardt something that all but guarantees he wins the preliminary Showdown so he doesn't have to rely on the fan vote to compete in the main event, something to give Earnhardt that "respect" he felt after winning the 2000 All-Star Race in his first attempt?

Heck, yeah, he would.

"It's fun to talk about," said Pemberton, who was a crew chief complaining about the tight box before he went to work for NASCAR. "The stuff they'd come up with would be insane, because there are a lot of smart guys out there.

"But as much fun as the concept would be to think about, it would be a disaster to implement."

Practical thinking always seems to get in the way. Pemberton's concern, and the concern of many owners, drivers and crew chiefs, is teams would spend so much money building special cars for the All-Star Race that it would detract from the rest of their program.

As Jeff Burton said, teams would spend $100,000 to win a million.

They probably would spend much more than that. The countless hours in the wind tunnel testing the aerodynamics of a new car might be restrictive alone. It likely would turn into a case of the rich getting richer.

But that's the way it has always been, and according to several crew chiefs, teams already are spending a ton to develop an All-Star car.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images The massive rear wing on Richard Petty's 1970 Plymouth Superbird was a sight to behold.

"If you open it up, I don't think that would make much difference," said Shane Wilson, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick. "Sometimes we spend more money when you don't open it up trying to get that last little bit out of the car."

Asked what he'd do if NASCAR took off the handcuffs, Wilson smiled and said, "I probably wouldn't run a COT car."

See, crew chiefs fantasize about taking chances just as much as drivers do when no points are on the line. Some of them have spent their entire lives learning how to use the imagination that NASCAR seemingly works so hard to subdue.

But at least for one weekend, it would be nice to let them take the gloves off. CMS president Marcus Smith is all in favor of it. He has other good ideas, too, such as letting two cars at a time race from a stand-still position to determine starting order.

He was told "no dice" on that, too.

"Somewhere there has to be a happy medium," Smith said. "The All-Star Race is a great place to do some of those things, and it really is a better way to test than a test. When you're testing you're not trying to win."

There are risks. Somebody might come up with something so dominant that it runs away from the field and turns a potential crashfest into a snoozefest. That basically happened with the T-Rex -- the car NASCAR told Evernham the day after the '97 event never to bring back to the track.

"T-Rex was built within the rules of that time," Evernham said. "Sunday after the race it was not because they changed the rules."

And as much as Evernham liked pushing the rules, he's not sure an All-Star Race without any limitations for crew chiefs would work.

"If you were to say to me, 'Look, you can do whatever you want and there's no rules,' you don't even want to see what I'm going to bring," Evernham said. "And somebody is going to get hurt in it."

So maybe make the crew chiefs work within the confines of the chassis that has proved over the past few years to protect the drivers. Perhaps Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip has the right idea.

"They should have a special car for the All-Star Race," he said. "I don't mean paint job. Come over here, the engine size is right and the thing weighs right and it's got the tires on the right side where they belong on and let everything else take their course.

"It would be fun. It would be amazing to see what these guys come up with."

But for every Waltrip who wants to see the governing body loosen up, there's a party pooper like Pemberton.

"It would be fun to fantasize about that stuff if you're a gearhead," he said. "The reality, it would be a pain to do it. As a participant, when you're already working 70 or 80 hours a week just to be within the rules, how much more would you put into it?

"It's insane, really."

But many things that have made the sport better have come out of taking insane chances. In 2009, NASCAR experimented with a double-file, shootout-style restart in the All-Star Race. It soon after was adopted for the entire series, and quite frankly has created some of the best moments of the past few years.

"Let them be creative and see what they show up with," Waltrip said of crew chiefs for this race.

You know Chad Knaus, one of the most penalized crew chiefs in NASCAR history, would be licking his chops.

"Any and every crew chief wishes they had somewhere new to explore," said Knaus' driver, five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "It's such a tight box none of them can. Every crew chief would be like, 'Hell, yeah, give me something new to try.' "

If drivers are allowed to wreck each other without penalty once a year, shouldn't crew chiefs be allowed to bend the rules -- just a little? Once? It doesn't have to be super expensive.

Maybe, as Kasey Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, suggested, do away with the height measurements. That would allow crew chiefs to fool around with setups and springs far beyond what they can do now.

Let the crew chiefs choose whether they want to use soft or hard tires, too. Put some strategy into this for everybody.

Let the crew chiefs have at it just like the drivers can. Let them put their hair down -- just like Earnhardt plans to do.

"If you're close enough to the guy at the end of the race, that's what's going to happen," Earnhardt reiterated of moving another driver for the win. "This race gets a bye when it comes to your feelings and getting your feelings hurt."

So make it a bye for crew chiefs, too.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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