Tony Eury Jr. is among the most amicable, light-hearted, approachable guys in NASCAR. Very smart. Very well-liked. Hilarious. Patient as a newborn's momma. It takes a lot to get him riled up.
So when the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ticked about something, you know with the utmost certainty he ain't kiddin'.
And when it comes to the "new-sheriff-in-town" philosophy employed by NASCAR officials in policing the Car of Tomorrow, make no mistake, Eury is less than enthralled. And he sure-as-the-8-is-red ain't kiddin'.
Ten minutes into a lighthearted recollection of his recent six-week vacation from the No. 8 pit box Monday -- including the assertion that it actually improved the team -- Eury was asked his thoughts on the unprecedented measures NASCAR is taking to deter even the slightest finagling with the Car of Tomorrow.
Eury seems to be a worthy judge. He was, after all, the first man busted on the COT clock.
"The [rule] book's there for a reason. The template's there for a reason -- to say, 'Hey, here's the line.' If you're walking down the street and don't know where the line is, sooner or later you're going to step across it," Eury said.
"Everybody [in the garage] is scared to death, saying 'Where do I cross the line?' And there's going to be guys that cross it. It's like [Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte] -- they didn't know they were crossing it. They stepped out in the street and a bus hit 'em. That ain't right."
Nextel Cup director John Darby isn't apologizing. He said Tuesday the sanctioning body is merely following up on a promise.
"The problem I have with all [the criticism] is don't act surprised," Darby said. "We told the world where we were going. We told the teams what we were going to do before we did it. Now all we're doing is backing up what we told everybody, and we'll continue to do that."
For the record, Eury understands and accepts his penalty, despite lingering frustration that, in his opinion, the illegal brackets placed on the No. 8 at Darlington were actually a disadvantage. The penalties levied against Knaus and Letarte, though?
"My deal? Yeah, I'll take my six weeks and [$100,000] and go on," Eury said. "That's what I should've got. But what [NASCAR] did to the 24 and 48, I think [NASCAR] blindsided everybody and put everybody on pins and needles."
Darby doesn't feel NASCAR blindsided anyone. He said it's simply part of the evolution into a new way of thinking.
"Everybody's worked in a procedure that's been one way for however many years and however many hundreds of races," Darby said. "And when you hit the day where it suddenly is 180 degrees different, it's real hard to understand -- until somebody takes it to a level and NASCAR reacts so that you have to step back away from the situation and rethink it."
Eury said teams were not given the interpretation of the rules NASCAR is using, especially the inability to work in open areas within the template structure. During COT development, Eury said, NASCAR's chief focus was eliminating the offset, or curved, chassis line from the front of the cars to the rear, a tactic employed by teams to gain maximum aerodynamic efficiency with the old spoiler cars.
Eury said NASCAR never mentioned an unwillingness to let teams work inside the templates, as Knaus and Letarte did by fanning out the front fenders on Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 and Jeff Gordon's No. 24, respectively, at Infineon Raceway two weeks ago. The change violated the "spirit" of the COT template, NASCAR officials said.
" 'Don't be trying to move [hard template] points on it,' -- that's basically what they said when they first started [with the COT]," Eury said.
"Now they're coming back and telling you, 'OK, this body has to look exactly like ours. There's nothing you could possibly do in between the templates.' That's not what was said in the wintertime. So everybody's on pins and needles now like, 'I've moved this a quarter-inch, am I going to get in trouble? Are they going to notice it? Have I got to do something?'
"They're trying to spell it out, but the way they're going about it, I don't think it's right. It's not right."
Put simply, Eury said the teams need clarity.
"You've got to give the teams a guideline and tell the teams, 'This is what I want you to build the car by, this is the way I want the car to look,' and the guidelines we have physically is what we'll use," Eury continued. "You can't give us something and then say, 'Well, I really just don't like the way that looks.'
"We can't play that game. There's too much at stake. There's too much of an advantage you can get in between [the templates]. You can't just wait for them to say, 'Well, we don't like the way that looks. Take your six weeks off and, oh, by the way, here's your $100,000 fine and 100 points.' That's not right."
Darby said NASCAR still offers tolerances to its teams. They have no choice.
"Absolutely. We can't manage this sport without tolerances, for the simple fact that these aren't stamped-out bodies off of the same tool that goes to every shop. These are hand-crafted steel bodies by human fabricators," Darby said.
"Everybody's making such a huge deal out this deal and we have tolerances just like we always have. But we're not talking about tolerances. The fenders on the 24 and 48 were over an inch off."
Eury said NASCAR should work more closely with the teams as the industry works to determine the dos and don'ts with the COT, not just dole out fines and suspensions for every discrepancy.
"What's going to happen when the suspensions start overlapping and you have eight or 10 of your best crew chiefs sitting on the sidelines?" Eury said. "What does that look like for our sport? Before long the race fans are going to go, 'You know, these guys are cheating so much [NASCAR] can't control it. So why should it be fair?'
"The teams built this car for [NASCAR]. Nobody knows anything about it. We're all trying to learn together. And then it's like they've stepped in and put their foot down and said, 'Look, we want this IROC car and you better not bring anything else that looks different.' "
Despite the drastic difference in appearance, Eury said the COT isn't much different than the spoiler car. The teams take a similar preparatory approach.
"They put that [template] grid down on [the COT], and all that did was take the offset out of the tail, the front nose and the roof. Everybody's cool with that," Eury said. "If you want a straight-line car, that's fine. But then they go and tell you if you touch anything in between those templates [you're in trouble]. Well, where's the line?
"We use that template as a guideline. We know not to make it look stupid in between [the template], but if I move a fender up half-an-inch in between that template, you're telling me that's $100,000 and six weeks? Where's that line cross? Does it cross at an eighth-of-an-inch? A sixteenth? Because your eye can't see it."
Darby said NASCAR has been lenient to date, but continues to escalate its restrictiveness with the COT as the year progresses.
"When we started at Bristol, we were pretty lenient to the point where we almost doubled the prescribed tolerances that were on the templates," Darby said. "We left Bristol with the message to all the teams is we want to see an improvement weekly by the garage.
"We'll give you time to get there. There will come a time later on in the season where we'll start drawing lines in the sand and say, 'OK, now we're an absolute fit.' "
NASCAR has done so in segments. So far, the rear-end module and front-end module have had to fit templates specifically. By Richmond in the fall, he said, the entire car must fit perfectly front-to-rear.
He said teams have adapted much more quickly than anticipated. In fact, he said the fender infractions on the Nos. 24 and 48 Chevrolets are the only instances of teams straying outside the box.
"The teams are [adapting] much faster and by much larger numbers than what we ever expected," Darby said. "If we do see some errors, they're just that, errors in fabrication."
NASCAR utilizes an elaborate digital scanning mechanism to approve bodies on COT cars. The device creates a three-dimensional image of an approved COT body, enabling NASCAR to compare teams' cars with the approved model. It is located in the research and development center in Concord, N.C. It does not travel with the series.
Johnson said last week on his weekly XM radio show that teams soon would be in the market for a machine.
I was 2,000 miles away [from Sonoma] and knew exactly what [Knaus and Letarte] done, and I said, 'Hell, that's no big deal.' I want some lines painted. I honestly don't think those guys did anything wrong. NASCAR does, though, and it's their ballgame.
Tony Eury Jr.
"We'll go spend a couple million bucks and figure how to do it so we're safe, so I don't know where we are saving money but we've got to do this," Johnson said. "We can't find ourselves in this situation again and I think it has sent a message through the garage area that you got to step up your game and make sure you are within this new parameter."
Eury predicts that teams will prepare cars for the next event at the shop, then truck it over to NASCAR's R&D Center for approval. Every week.
"I think they take the IndyCar approach, and if somebody's got a big [illegality], like me, fine," Eury said. "I'll take my dues and you can spread it however. But when you've got a problem like [Knaus and Letarte], there's some things you can go nonchalantly about but still handle.
"That's my biggest [problem]. I think [NASCAR's] trying to light a fire under everybody, but they're also creating a problem for themselves. It's been getting less and less fun the last three years. And all [NASCAR's] doing is making it worse."
Eury said he's all for reducing the number of cars in a team's fleet. He appreciates the thought that teams can run the same car at Infineon and Daytona. But there have to be alteration tolerances for the teams.
"There's a way to do this together," he said. "We can paint lines and say 'That guy is wrong, this guy's right.' Right now it's [NASCAR's] way or no way. It needs to be all of us working together to determine what works and what don't.
"I was 2,000 miles away [from Sonoma] and knew exactly what [Knaus and Letarte] done, and I said, 'Hell, that's no big deal.' I want some lines painted. I honestly don't think those guys did anything wrong. NASCAR does, though, and it's their ballgame."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.