Pothole-pocked season could be worse

Juan Pablo Montoya gained his first Nextel Cup victory Sunday on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., but it wasn't the weekend's most important NASCAR news.

His achievement was lapped by the exploits of two Hendrick Motorsports teams that officials flagged for unapproved body modifications before the first practice session for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

This cheating incident is the latest to smudge NASCAR's reputation less than halfway through the season. The year has spiraled downhill from the moment Michael Waltrip got spanked before the season-opening Daytona 500 after a still-undisclosed funky substance was discovered in his engine.

Waltrip led the parade of seven teams to the NASCAR woodshed at the opening race in January for skirting technical rules.

At the next race two weeks later, disappointment continued as California Speedway again failed to fill its 80,000 seats despite being in the country's second-biggest market. The only way California Speedway might fill seats for either of its two races is to offer passes to past boyfriends of Paris Hilton and to anyone else who has seen her naked.

Only a few races this year have sold out, including the March 11 Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Right after the California snooze-fest, inadequate tires that Goodyear provided for the new surface at Las Vegas offered a stage for several drivers to sing sad songs about alleged treacherous driving conditions.

Television ratings, though still usually tops in sports every Cup weekend, have dipped for most races except the one here.

In April, Tony Stewart said NASCAR was "playing God" by throwing unnecessary caution flags during the race near Phoenix in which he finished second. He likened the outcome of some races to theatrical wrestling matches a few days later on his satellite radio show. He was fined and put on probation for the rest of the year.

Through the season's first 16 races, the series' latest poster boy, vastly popular and good-lookin' Kasey Kahne, is 26th in points with one top-10 finish after winning a series-best six races a year ago.

Also, NASCAR trailblazer Bill France Jr. died earlier this month.

Lost amid the Hendrick cheating saga was a slip of the tongue Sunday, apparently by Kyle Petty, who was heard dropping an F-bomb over his two-way radio on a replay of his second-lap crash aired on TNT.

Nothing can prevent a driver's heated reaction, an elderly person's death, or the slip of a tongue when your car gets slammed.

However, too many teams lack sufficient gray matter when seeking an edge and live in the "gray area" of rules interpretation. Asking for forgiveness beats asking for permission every time, they believe.

NASCAR lost more than an ounce of respect when it used a wet sponge Tuesday to slap the hands of Hendrick crew chiefs Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) and Steve Letarte (Jeff Gordon). Each received a $100,000 fine and was suspended for six races, while both drivers lost 100 championship points.

So the most revered team -- the most dominant team, with its four cars producing 13 wins in 16 races -- gets caught traipsing out of bounds. Again.

Team owner Rick Hendrick, acclaimed patron saint of all things wholesome in NASCAR, could end the cheating if he wanted.

NASCAR has gained major league status, but if it wants to keep that status, a repeat offender like Knaus should receive double or triple the fines and suspensions -- and be kept away from the track and barred from communicating with his team on race weekends while serving his timeout.

Knaus was fined and suspended for cheating last year. He also was nailed the year before for an unapproved modification after his car won the Las Vegas race. He spent most of the past two seasons on probation.

You'd think Hendrick and NASCAR would have had enough. Just park a car for a race and let the sponsor exert pressure on the team to play by the rules. Then cheating will stop.

Though this season has not been NASCAR's best, it could be worse.

No NASCAR driver has been arrested for gun possession, drunken driving, drug use or causing a brawl at a strip club. The NBA, NFL and major league baseball would love to make that claim.

At least Gordon and Johnson weren't altered with performance-enhancing substances. Even if their cars were.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.