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NASCAR stalls again on road to legitimacy

Many left turns ago, NASCAR’s top officials decided they wanted stock car racing to be a major sport. To that end, they expanded racing’s regional reach to tracks across the country. They leveled the competitive playing field by standardizing cars and implementing a vigorous inspection process. They even introduced their own version of playoffs – a “Chase” for the title in the sport’s top division.

All of which, they hoped, would woo new fans and corporate dollars to the sport. It was a vision particularly important to the Charlotte region, home to many of the top racing teams, and city officials bought into the bright future by committing public dollars for a winning bid to house the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But NASCAR’s rise has seemed to plateau – and in some cases it’s gone the wrong direction. TV ratings have declined. Race venues have at times struggled to fill seats. And that Hall of Fame? It never attracted the fans – or the merely curious – that were expected to come.

Experts and observers offer plenty of theories on why NASCAR can’t make the jump to the majors. Here’s one: The sport doesn’t know what to do with its cheaters.

That was apparent yet again in the aftermath of last Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. The race was the last of the Sprint Cup’s regular season, and some positions in the Chase were still up for grabs. That led members of Michael Waltrip Racing, including drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, to manipulate the race leaderboard so that their teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could gain enough ground to make the Chase. Bowyer started it all when his car inexplicably spun late in the race (and right after some suspicious radio communication) causing a caution flag. Then Bowyer and Vickers took unnecessary pit stops that set off a chain of events resulting in Truex getting a coveted spot in the 12-driver Chase.

Such scheming is a big no-no in NASCAR, and the racing body responded with a $300,000 fine for the MWR team, points penalties for the drivers, and an indefinite suspension of MWR executive Ty Norris. “This naturally is a very significant reaction,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

Equally significant is this: The driver who played a major role in the incident, Bowyer, will be allowed to compete in the Chase for this year’s championship. It’s part of a NASCAR pattern of levying seemingly severe penalties that don’t really hurt the team – because the driver is spared the worst. Look no further than the sport’s best driver, Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 team has been caught and penalized on several occasions for cheating. But unlike repeat offenders – or even first-timers in some sports – Johnson has not once been barred from competing for his sport’s title.

Doing that wouldn’t be easy, of course. Drivers are critical to their teams’ and NASCAR’s revenues. But if you truly want to remove a stain on your sport, you have to make the consequences of it sting. Major League Baseball has realized this finally by taking the difficult first steps of handing out stiff drug suspensions to top players, including MVP Ryan Braun.

NASCAR, for now, wants to have it both ways. It wants to convince people that it’s a legitimate sport, one that won’t tolerate the “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t tryin’ ” mindset that has long been part of its culture. But sports fans know leniency when they see it, again and again. If NASCAR really wants to get somewhere, it’ll stop driving in circles.

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