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NASCAR bumps against tradition in addressing cheating

Story Highlights

• Fallout continues after Michael Waltrip's team caught was using a fuel additive
• NASCAR says it will crack down on cheating
• Waltrip's crew chief was fined a NASCAR-record $100,000
• The team was docked 100 points
By Steve Almasy
CNN
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(CNN) -- Stock car racing was built by those trying to beat the system.

Many of the early racers learned their make-your-car-go-faster tricks to outrun the cops in the South, to run some moonshine and make a few bucks.

Then they used the same tricks on their race cars on Sundays for a few hundred dollars in prize money.

But NASCAR isn't about a few bucks anymore. It's a billion dollar industry, and every team spends millions on each of its cars.

And those good old days of tweaking and tinkering for extra speed are hitting up against NASCAR rules that aim to curb cheating. (Watch how controversy is ruling over Daytona this week Video)

Crew chiefs, the men ultimately responsible for what goes into the race cars, constantly engage in a cat-and-mouse contest, trying to gain an advantage on their competitors.

Last week, one of the sport's most popular drivers and team owners got nabbed just after qualifying for the Daytona 500. NASCAR said Michael Waltrip's No. 55 team was using a fuel additive, a huge no-no.

On Wednesday, Waltrip's crew chief, David Hyder, was fined a NASCAR-record $100,000, and the team was docked 100 points, more than half the number of points a driver can get for winning a race. Those points are crucial, considering that NASCAR allows the top 35 teams in points into the 43-car field each week, no matter what their qualifying times are.

So it may surprise first-time viewers this Sunday that Waltrip will still be allowed in the biggest race of the year, as will four other drivers whose teams were reprimanded for lesser violations.

Waltrip told reporters after finishing a qualifying race well enough to make the lineup for the 500 that he was satisfied with the punishment from NASCAR.

"Whatever they would have said, I would accept because it was just a terrible mistake. I don't need to cheat to win this race. I've done it before," the two-time Daytona 500 winner said Thursday afternoon.

NASCAR said this week it must put its foot down on cheaters. Brian France told a news conference on Tuesday that the integrity of the sport means everything and cheating would be met with harsher penalties.

"Clearly the whole thing is NASCAR once again trying to clean up its image and say it's an honest, good, family American sport," said Roger Casey, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Rollins College and an expert on Southern culture.

NASCAR is notoriously protective of its image, especially as it tries to grow its fanbase throughout the United States, and Waltrip has been one of the sport's best ambassadors.

He often is a commentator for NASCAR's truck races and also co-hosts a racing wrap-up show Mondays on the Speed cable TV channel.

"He sort of plays the 'funny kid in class' role in NASCAR so this will be interesting to see how this [cheating scandal] tarnishes his image," Casey said.

Waltrip also is one of the sport's most popular pitchmen. Fans love his commercials where he hawks for his sponsors, a major auto parts chain and a national appliance and home furnishings rental center. He also has done ads for pizza and hotel chains and a cell phone company.

Waltrip has never had a reputation as a cheater -- then again he's only won four cup races in 22 years. But many longtime race fans and officials have said that every team tries to get away with something.

Casey said that "old school" NASCAR people have told him "that [cheating] is always going on.'"

But these days there are more people at the race tracks and especially at Daytona to catch people who may cheat.

"It's Daytona. ... Many of the car pieces are specialized, and because of that, the rules and the inspection process are tighter," NASCAR.com reporter David Caraviello wrote on the site Thursday.

One driver -- from the first family of stock-car racing -- acknowledged that at least he, too, had cheated on occasion.

"I'm not throwing rocks; I live in that glass house. I've cheated 10 million times and I'll admit it straight up ... lived to pay for it and lived to walk away from it," Kyle Petty told CNN on Thursday.

Still NASCAR's increasingly heavier fines are getting the attention of drivers and crew chiefs.

Boris Said, a road racer-turned-Nextel Cup driver, told CNN that the governing body was drawing not a line, but "a ditch in the sand."

"It's just like speeding on the highway -- you get a $100 ticket. If the fine was life in imprisonment, you wouldn't speed. That's what NASCAR's doing now to us racers," he said.

CNN.com's David E. Williams contributed to this report.


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NASCAR has said it will crack down on cheating with harsher penalties.

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