Cheating or innovation? In NASCAR, it's all a matter of perception

No one ever has cheated in the recorded history of auto racing.

Just ask the drivers, owners and team members. They'll tell you exactly what they've done:

Pushed the envelope, worked in the gray areas, outsmarted the other guy, tweaked the car and invented new applications. And sometimes, just for fun, they stuck it to the man.

But cheated? Never. Doesn't happen, not in the eyes of the racers.

In the eyes of almost everyone else, auto racing has more cheaters than any other sport.

Here's the deal: Auto racing is cheat-friendly. The main instrument of the sport (the car) is a complex piece of equipment with thousands of parts in various sizes and shapes, each with a specific task.

Altering just one of those parts can have the desired effect of improved performance. Some people call that cheating. Others call it innovation.

Whatever you call it, NASCAR seems to have more of it than all the other racing leagues combined. This 2007 season isn't past the halfway point by much, but we already could dub it "The Year of the Cheaters."

The theme started with the season-opening Daytona 500 when Michael Waltrip's new Toyota team was caught with some type of illegal fuel additive (officials never revealed the substance) in the car's manifold.

The crew chief and the team vice president were sent home, but Waltrip still made the race in a backup car.

The teams for drivers Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Scott Riggs and Matt Kenseth also received penalties from NASCAR for illegal modifications to their cars at Daytona.

NASCAR also showed this season that it isn't afraid to go after its stars. The teams for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson all received 100-point penalties and crew chief suspensions for violations found on the new Car of Tomorrow.

But NASCAR isn't alone in the area of bending the rules. The IndyCar Series team of Dreyer & Reinbold was caught using the wrong fuel (methanol instead of the new ethanol) during practice sessions for the Indy 500 in May.

The team was fined $25,000. IRL president Brian Barnhart played down the incident.

"It must be a slow month if everyone is making a big deal out of this," Barnhart said.

Maybe that's the point. NASCAR makes a public display of disciplining its rules violators. Other racing leagues often keep it quiet. Officials prefer to reprimand the offenders behind closed doors, keeping information about the crime and punishment private.

Regardless how it's handled, circumventing the rules continues in racing. But despite the spike in infractions this year, cheating is far less prevalent today than it was a generation ago.

It's not for a lack of trying. It's just a whole lot harder to do. The window of opportunity is shrinking as the cars become almost identical in engine, body and chassis regulations.

Guys tried anything and everything to gain an advantage in the old days. Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt used nitrous oxide to boost horsepower in qualifying for the 1976 Daytona 500.

There was the infamous Waltrip scam when his crew chief, Gary Nelson, rigged the car with a device to release buckshot on the parade lap, reducing the weight of the car as Waltrip told his crew, "Bombs away, boys."

Or the hilarious moment when NASCAR inspectors removed the gas tank from Smokey Yunick's car before watching him drive off without it.

That type of cheating is absurd by today's standards. Breaking the rules now is done in tiny increments.

A team might modify the body of the car by a fraction of an inch to try to gain 20 pounds of downforce. Or alter the fuel tank just enough to gain one more lap of the track without pitting.

Most of the time, it doesn't seem worth the risk. NASCAR officials have dramatically increased the punishment for any team caught violating the rules.

Some of the infractions this year wouldn't have been punishable offenses in the past. Inspectors would have told the teams what the problem was and given them a chance to fix it without a penalty.

Those days are gone. NASCAR officials are tired of people seeing the sport as a league of cheaters.

Everyone in NASCAR has heard the line, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'."

It isn't funny in the eyes of the NASCAR hierarchy. NASCAR desperately wants to eliminate the perception of hayseeds breaking rules just for fun.

The perception is false. They're still circumventing the rules, but these guys aren't hayseeds. They are some of the best engineers in the world, using millions of dollars worth of advanced technology.

These brainiacs use state-of-the-art computers, wind tunnels and highly specialized mechanical devices to find any possible edge when hundredths of a second can make the difference between winning and losing.

Sometimes you find something a little outside the lines of conformity. The racers say it's just part of the process. Others say it's cheating. You be the judge.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak5.com.