By Mike Mulhern
What’s wrong at Rick Hendrick’s?
Well, maybe not much, really, with the Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teams.
But what about Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus?
Johnson and Knaus certainly don’t look like champions right now.
“Well, we’re certainly learning,” Johnson says with a wry grin.
Gordon paced the game Friday at Martinsville Speedway, edging Toyota’s Denny Hamlin for the pole for Sunday’s Goody’s 500. Johnson is going for his fourth straight win at this flat half-mile; Gordon is going for the seventh win of his career here.
Gordon has 65 tour poles now, and only Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough have more.
The Sunday story, though, is that Johnson and Knaus have been surprisingly inconsistent this spring. “We all get sucked into things we think are predictable, and we forget this is racing and nothing is predictable,” Johnson, 10th Friday, says. “This is so tough, and it’s so easy to lose whatever you have.
“Just a tenth or two of a second can take you from hero to zero.
“Maybe we spent a little too much time worrying about last year’s championship. But, hell, I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
“We certainly have gotten off to a slower start than we wanted. But we have had some good races. California went well; Bristol was one of the most competitive Bristols I’ve ever had.
“We’ve been testing the past two weeks, and we’re a lot smarter…and we’re looking forward to Texas (next week). I’m learning how to drive this car on the bigger tracks, and we’re learning how to set it up too.
“We don’t like where we are either. But if you look at stretches we’ve had, or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, it’s not uncommon to have four or five weeks where they’re not good races. We’ve been doing this long enough we’re trying not to overreact.”
But the hot story of the day was Jack Roush, accusing a Toyota rival of “intellectual espionage.”
It was another round of the long-running Roush-versus-Toyota game, and Roush wouldn’t name the offending team.
NASCAR, meanwhile, dismissed it as just a normal team-versus-team matter.
And Toyota’s NASCAR field boss, Lee White, also dismissed the issue as not much of a story.
Nevertheless Roush was fanning the flames as hard as he could Friday.
Formula One just had its McLaren theft controversy, with that team being fined a stunning $100 million last summer for possessing technical secrets stolen from rival Ferrari. And some in that sport felt McLaren should have been barred from the world championship chase for that violation.
And now NASCAR may have its own similar theft controversy: Ford’s Roush is hoping mad about Toyota, again, and this time it’s about a car part of his that somehow wound up in the hands of an unnamed Toyota team.
Roush says he probably wouldn’t be making an issue of the deal if not for public criticism of him by White at Atlanta three weeks, claiming he probably knew just how much of an aerodynamic advantage that loose oil-tank lid was for winner Carl Edwards’ car at Las Vegas.
Now, round two, and Roush says Geoff Smith, his lawyer and the team president, told him it was legally proper to call this issue “a theft.”
And Roush says legal action is still under consideration.
Roush, who declined to name the team, said the incident occurred last September but wasn’t discovered until the winter.
Talks with NASCAR, Roush says have gone nowhere.
NASCAR officials says it’s a team-versus-team issue, and crews should take responsibility for securing their equipment in the NASCAR garage.
Roush, though, is more than miffed: “It is interesting that the high-standards we have in this sport for the things teams may do in racing against each other don’t apply to simple moral conduct,” Roush says. “For me to have to go to the courts to deal with this problem would be a disappointment.
“NASCAR could do a lot.
“In as much as NASCAR has not decided to be on my side in this, I’ll seek relief elsewhere. It’s basically lawyer time.”
The story, according to Roush: Last September at Dover, Del., Friday before the race, someone from a rival Toyota team slipped behind one of the Roush rolling tool boxes and sneaked off with a front anti-roll sway bar – a three-foot-long hollow steel tube about three inches in diameter, a key chassis part, particularly with NASCAR’s new winged car, and typically proprietary in design. Edwards and Greg Biffle gave Roush a one-two finish in the Dover 400.
Earnhardt said anything that sneaky would violate the “gentlemen’s agreement” in the NASCAR garage: “If that happened, whoever did it ought not to have a hard card any more, hands down. If anybody steals anything off my pit stall, he doesn’t deserve to be in the garage. No second chances there.
“You assume you get enough respect around here that people don’t steal from you.”
Since teams have perhaps a dozen different size sway bars, the bar wasn’t discovered missing until January when a parts vendor called Roush to ask about a request he’d received from a rival Toyota team to make sway bars of similar design.
That alerted the Roush crew, which then discovered the piece, serial-numbered, was missing.
Roush said he didn’t want to name the offending team, “because I really don’t want to embarrass that sponsor or that team.”
White says after he learned about Roush’s complaints this week “we took immediate steps to conduct a comprehensive investigation of our TRD (Toyota Racing Development) facilities in both California and North Carolina.
“The only thing we learned was one small incident after the recent rain-delayed race in Fontana where, following teardown on Monday a valve spring that was not ours ended up at TRD’s California location. In less than 24 hours that part was returned…..
“We made NASCAR aware of that incident, and they indicated it was not an issue.
“The sway-bar issue that Jack Roush referenced….is an issue that appears to be between two race teams and does not involve a manufacturer.”
White said Toyota was more focused on winning races, and pointed to eight teams in the top-35 in the standings, where last year at this point Toyota had none. “We know we’re headed in the right direction and will continue to focus our efforts on the track rather than away from the track,” White said.
Nevertheless Roush wouldn’t back off and said he is still contemplating legal action over the issue, perhaps even a restraining order to deny the use of any similar parts, because he says NASCAR has ignored his complaints: “There are people that want to sweep the dirt under the rug…..now I don’t want to embarrass that (Toyota) team or its sponsors, but I also don’t want to be made to either look stupid or ‘complicit.’”
NASCAR executives yesterday said the issue wasn’t theirs to debate and they declined to comment.
But Jeff Gordon, a seven-time winner here, says he’s having a good laugh about Roush’s complaints: “If it’s so important, why is he just leaving stuff laying around the garage?
“If it’s so proprietary, you’d think he’d keep a tighter grip on it.
“I think the whole thing is just hilarious. It’s a great story, and we’re all talking about it up in the truck. It’s making for good entertainment around the garage.
“I really hope Jack isn’t taking it that seriously. It really is just something to smile about.
“I’m trying not to laugh. It’s that silly. The thing might have rolled over in their garage stall.
“I think the FBI ought to get involved.
“If he’s really that upset about it, I want to know what’s going on with that sway bar. Maybe there’s something we’re missing, that really is contributing to how fast their cars are. But I don’t think it is.
“I guess you just shouldn’t leave things laying around. I talked to my guys, and they said ‘You’d be surprised – you’re cleaning up after the race and you see a lot of stuff just laying around.’ You can take it, or not take it, or tell NASCAR about it.
“If they don’t claim it, I think it’s just yours.
“The difference is Roush wanted it back…and he got it back.”
What’s dirty pool or fair game in the NASCAR garage? Where is the line?
Teams have long taken photographs of rivals’ cars. But actually taking parts, well, that, Kyle Petty says, goes over the line.
Roush says NASCAR called it “business as usual. But I’ve been in this sport 22 years and I have never stolen anything from someone to gain an advantage,” Roush said.
The sway bar assemblies are held in a large slot under the huge tool box. The sway bar is part of the chassis which determines handling, and is one of the parts that is not specifically limited by NASCAR rules, so teams are relatively free in their designs. Sway bars used to be just a plain solid steel tube, but over the years that part has become increasingly sophisticated.
Roush says the particular Roush team – not identified – didn’t realize the specific part was missing, since teams carry several of those pieces. In January when Roush learned of the missing part, “I was ready to go supersonic. I wanted to get a search warrant and get the bar. This is industrial espionage. We’ve been harmed by this theft.”
After first considering quick legal action to try to recover the piece, Roush men called the team in question (not identified) and asked about the issue. Officials at that team checked and discovered the piece in their shop and said it would be immediately returned to the Roush shop, which it was. “A clandestine meeting was arranged, for 6 a.m., and I got the bar back,” Roush said
Roush says he was surprised the sway bar wasn’t simply thrown in the Yadkin River.
“We were all loaded up to go public with this….but I said let’s first go to NASCAR and see if we can work this out,” Roush said. “I have had three discussions with NASCAR about appropriate relief. I won’t describe the status of those discussions. But I still don’t have a satisfactory resolution.”
Roush contacted NASCAR executives in January about the situation to inquire about how to should proceed. But NASCAR has given him no particular response, terming it an issue between teams.
However Roush crewmen have been highly upset over the situation, insisting on some action.
So the battle continues Roush-versus-Toyota, which erupted three weeks ago in Atlanta, after Toyota’s NASCAR field boss accused Roush of knowing Carl Edwards’ oil-tank-cooler top infraction at Las Vegas was worth a significant edge in aerodynamic downforce. Edwards won that race and the California race and was running away at Atlanta until his engine broke in the closing miles.
According to a Toyota statement Thursday, the part at question now is an engine valve spring. Roush specifically denied that, and he “refuted” what Toyota vice president Jim Aust said about the issue – that the part was returned as soon as it was discovered. “They didn’t bring it back until they knew we could prove it,” Roush said.
“This Toyota team went behind my tool box and took my bar and put it in with theirs, and took it home. That is a fact; it has not been refuted. And it has been discussed with that team.”
However Roush says he still hasn’t talked with any Toyota officials about any of this. “Lee (White) has made two calls into me, but I haven’t returned them, because I’m still mad,” Roush said.
“I was really, really upset at Atlanta when I was confronted with the story about Lee White’s comments that contended I was either stupid or complicit in the part in question at Las Vegas. That was really making me crazy.
“I said they really shouldn’t be throwing rocks around because they may just be subject to a restraining order on one or more of their teams because of this theft.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
On the medical front, Elliott Sadler is iffy for Sunday’s 500 after suffering an unspecified lower back injury, apparently during a routine physical workout during the week. Dennis Setzer will be handling relief work for Sadler, who hopes to start the race, for points.
Mark McArdle, vice president for Gillett-Evernham, says the team knows little about the nature of the injury or what Sadler might be able to do. McArdle says the team is willing to let Sadler and his personal doctor address the issue.
Sadler, who qualified the Dodge 25th, didn’t seem to know much more: “My back started to hurt late Wednesday, and the pain was more noticeable when I got up Thursday. It was a normal week for me, so that’s what really gets me more than anything.
“Nothing hurts a driver more than not being in his race car with his team. My goal is to be better by Sunday so I can race.”
Failing to make Sunday’s 500 field: Kyle Petty, John Andretti, Joe Nemechek and Tony Raines.
Eddie and Len Wood have had a tough spring as car owners, but Bill Elliott got their Ford in the field here. “It’s just bad,” Eddie Wood said of the year so far. “Anybody that doesn’t make the show week to week, it’s hard on everybody. It’s hard on the sponsors, it’s hard on the crew, it’s hard on the driver.
“It’s just a bad deal. It’s the way the rules are…and it is what it is. You come and just do the best you can.
“But it’s hard.”
Another Wallace will be on the track here this weekend, Chrissy Wallace, Mike Wallace’s 20-year-old daughter, in Saturday’s Truck 250.
“It’s a good thing to have my dad spot for me because a lot of people do not trust their spotters and he’s definitely somebody that I can rely on,” Wallace says. “I made the comment to my mom the other day, when we were coming back home, I was like ‘Dad actually does know what he is talking about.’
“There might be times when I want to pull my earplugs out and not listen, but last week when we were here testing he helped me pick up four-tenths, and we ran really well that day with him spotting for me.”
Tony Stewart sponsors her in a Late Model, with http://www.smoke20.com. “He came over for the last hour of practice and told me where I needed to back off and where I should run in a little bit harder,” she said. “And with his help we picked up two-tenths by the end of the day and ran the fastest lap that we ran.
“I was actually supposed to test a Midget for him Tuesday and Wednesday, but we didn’t take the chance of doing that because of racing here we didn’t want anything happening.”