France says penalties will stiffen until violators get message

NASCAR chairman Brian France gave his annual midseason state-of-sport conference call Tuesday. Take a wild guess what became the main topic?

Cheating. Four of the first five questions to France involved penalties this season for cheating and how NASCAR plans to address the ongoing problem with teams breaking the rules.

France made three key points:

• NASCAR would continue to escalate the penalties until teams get the message, but NASCAR won't "customize" penalties based on a driver's position in the standings.

• NASCAR would consider making a team sit out a race, what France called "the death penalty," but he hoped it wouldn't become necessary.

• France believes crew chiefs are violating the intent of a suspension by being at a racetrack communicating with their team during the suspension period. A suspension eliminates access to only the places where a crew chief needs a credential. France said it's likely NASCAR will address that situation soon.

New Chase format a good thing

Sunday's race at New Hampshire proved why the new Chase format this year improves racing up front. Drivers securely inside the top 12 need victories more than points.

The Chase field this year is seeded by wins. So Denny Hamlin's crew gambled on a two-tire stop at the end to go for the victory. It worked.

And Jeff Gordon was furious when his COT Chevy was pushing too much for him to pass Hamlin in the closing laps. Gordon is on top of the standings, but he knew a victory would mean 10 more points on the other Chase drivers when the playoff starts.

NASCAR deserves praise for making a change that causes some drivers to go all out for a victory instead of being content to race for points.

SAFER Barrier designer honored

Dean Sicking, the man responsible for the development of the SAFER Barrier that is used now at all major speedways in America, is headed to the White House.

Sicking will receive the National Science and Technology Medal from President Bush on July 27. The medal is the country's highest award for technological innovation.

Anyone who has sat in a race car over the last five years should thank Sicking. The University of Nebraska engineer revolutionized auto-racing safety with the collapsible wall that dissipates energy on impact.

Sicking is being recognized not only for his work in motorsports, but also his innovative designs and development of roadside safety devices. It's estimated that over 150 lives are saved each year by technological advances Sicking helped implement on U.S. highways.

No one knows for certain how many lives the SAFER Barrier has saved in racing accidents, but many drivers have walked away unhurt thanks to the collapsible wall.

COT parity

So much for the Car of Tomorrow evening things out between the haves and the have-nots.

Five teams have drivers ranked in the top 12 in COT points: Hendrick Motorsports (3), Joe Gibbs Racing (2), Richard Childress Racing (3), Roush Fenway Racing (2) and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (2).

Those are five of the top six Nextel Cup teams in financial value, according to Forbes magazine.

No Petty at Daytona

Saturday marks the end of an era. For the first time in 42 years, a Petty will not race a Cup event at Daytona.

Kyle Petty will work in the TNT broadcast booth while John Andretti drives the No. 45 Dodge.

A little extra trivia to that note: Since the speedway opened in 1959, a Petty has competed every year at Daytona except 1961 and 1965. Lee and Richard Petty both wrecked in Daytona 500 qualifying races in 1961. Chrysler was boycotting NASCAR events in 1965.

Monster pay raise for Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton may qualify as the most underpaid driver in racing. The sensational British rookie is making only $300,000 this year for the Formula One McLaren team, but that could change soon.

It's not bad money by most standards, but it's near poverty level for an F1 driver.

After Hamilton's victories in Montreal and Indianapolis, Anthony Hamilton (Lewis' father and manager) felt it was time to cash in on the fine print in Lewis' contract.

The Spanish newspaper Marca reports that the contract includes a clause to renegotiate the deal if Hamilton is leading the standings at midseason.

Hamilton has clinched that goal. He's on top with a 14-point lead over teammate Fernando Alonso after eight of 17 events.

So how much will his salary increase? Just add another zero and you'll be close.

Force, Bernstein on outside looking in

Some big names in drag racing are in danger of sitting out the first championship playoff in NHRA history.

Five races remain to make the top eight spots that qualify for the Countdown to the Championship in each pro category, but NHRA legends John Force and Kenny Bernstein are outside the cutoff point in Funny Car.

Bernstein, who came out of retirement to return to racing this year, ranks 13th, but only 65 points behind Jack Beckman in eighth place. Force, the 14-time champion, ranks 15th.

Cruz Pedregon, the 1992 Funny Car champ, ranks 10th, but he's only 12 points outside the cutoff spot.

Things also look precarious for Doug Kalitta, who lost the Top Fuel title last year to Tony Schumacher on the last pass of the last race. Kalitta is 12th in the standings, 53 points below Melanie Troxel in the No. 8 spot.

But the new format is good news for all these drivers. Any realistic championship hopes would be long gone in the old system.

Chase for No. 12

If things don't change dramatically in the next few Cup races, the Chase decider race at Richmond in September won't have much drama.

Only two drivers are within 200 points of the 12th-place cutoff spot, which Dale Earnhardt Jr. occupies at the moment. Ryan Newman is 127 points behind Earnhardt and Jamie McMurray is 184 points outside the 12th spot.

Drivers have nine races remaining to make the Chase field.

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