Crew chief suspensions, hefty fines merely a slap on the wrist

SONOMA, Calif. -- Why did they do it?

The cars for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had illegal body modifications Friday morning. Neither team was allowed to practice or qualify.

They will start in the back Sunday for the Toyota/Save Mart 300 in cars capable of winning on the Infineon Raceway road course.

Gordon has a 264-point lead in the Nextel Cup standings. Johnson is third, 73 points behind Gordon. Both men are safely inside the 12-driver cutoff for the Chase playoff, which starts in September.

Until NASCAR is willing to park a car for a race or change a team's playoff status, the ridiculous game of 'catch me if you can' will continue.

So why gamble on doing something outside the rules?

Because they can. In the big picture, nothing bad will happen. Yes, a substantial penalty is coming, but the pain is minimal.

Until NASCAR is willing to park a car for a race or change a team's playoff status, the ridiculous game of "catch me if you can" will continue.

NASCAR officials puff out their chests, shake their fingers and say they aren't playing around on this stuff. They say they won't tolerate rule violators.

But every time you think the teams are starting to get the message, they fool us again and drift back into the cheating mode.

OK, "cheating" is the wrong term. It's pushing the envelope and trying to gain an advantage.

Whatever. The point is these guys keep doing it.

The penalties from NASCAR keep escalating; the teams keep breaking the rules.

A big penalty is certain for both teams, probably coming Tuesday. Each driver will receive at least a 100-point deduction, and both crew chiefs -- Steve Letarte for Gordon and Chad Knaus for Johnson -- will receive at least a $100,000 fine and probably six-week suspensions.

We know this because that's the penalty the No. 8 Chevy for Dale Earnhardt Jr. received as the first team caught doing a no-no on the Car of Tomorrow.

Earnhardt's car had illegal bolts on the rear wing in an initial inspection at Darlington last month.

NASCAR officials have said repeatedly that COT violations will bring a major punishment. They also have said the penalties will continue to escalate.

None of that rhetoric matters. Unless NASCAR is willing to make a team sit out an event, these guys will continue to see just how much they can get away with.

It's like a toddler when his mother says, "Don't you touch that glass." It becomes a dare. The kid does it until the punishment exceeds the crime. Sometimes, it takes a timeout.

Let's assume Gordon and Johnson both receive a 100-point penalty. It sounds much worse than it is.

A 100-point pop is less than half of Gordon's lead in the standings. The same penalty for Johnson would move him from third to fourth.

Whoopee. And even that doesn't really matter.

The Chase drivers are seeded by victories. Gordon and Johnson are tied for the most wins this season with four each. At this point, both drivers would start the Chase on top even if they fell a few spots in the points standings.

Both drivers also will have to race most of the summer without their crew chiefs. Again, not a problem. Hendrick Motorsports has the deepest talent pool in NASCAR, with more than 500 employees.

The crew chiefs won't be on the pit box, but they will be where they are needed the most -- at the shop every day helping prepare cars for each race.

In the meantime, both teams will place another talented team member in the crew-chief chair on race day.

Johnson lost Knaus for the first four races last season. He won two of them and finished second and sixth in the other two. Johnson also won his first Cup title.

Then there's the $100,000 fine. For most of us, that would be life-changing. For Cup teams, it's like throwing a coin in the wishing well.

NASCAR officials should make teams sit out a race, but they don't. Fans of the drivers involved would throw a fit, not to mention the sponsors.

In this case, even skipping the event isn't enough. Losing the points for one race wouldn't have much impact on either team.

You have to make the punishment meaningful. For example, tell Gordon and Johnson they have to start the Chase at the bottom of the playoff field, assuming they both still finish the regular season in the top 12.

Now that's a serious penalty. If the crews for the No. 24 and No. 48 knew going in that that was a possibility, you think they would have flared out those fenders and hoped nobody noticed?

Not a chance. When the risk becomes greater than the reward, the strategy changes. Fear takes over.

So far, even with all of NASCAR's tough talk, no one is scared straight.

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