AYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — When NASCAR suspended crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for six weeks, he figured he’d take his wife on an overdue Hawaiian vacation.
Then he found a loophole in his punishment: Although he couldn’t be in the garage area, NASCAR wasn’t banning him from track property. And he was only forbidden from using the team’s radio communications, but text messaging, cell phones and instant messenger were fine to use.
So Eury called off the trip to Maui and traveled to five of the six races he was suspended from to support driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That didn’t sit well with chairman Brian France, who has instructed his officials to inform suspended team members they are not permitted to be on track property during their punishments.
The change comes as Eury’s suspension ends — he’s at Daytona International Speedway preparing for Saturday night’s race — but Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte have five races remaining on their penalties.
“We’ll throw the fear of God into everybody and hope they don’t be seen at the racetrack,” Nextel Cup director John Darby said Thursday.
That’s where Eury went wrong.
He was somewhat discreet about his presence for the first four races, but many believe he flaunted it last weekend at New Hampshire when he parked his motorhome on a hill outside the track. He then climbed on top to watch the race in a lawn chair, equipped with his scanner and a laptop computer so he could aide Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the event.
“He was parked up on the hill with all the other fans, and I guess there was no real discussions about whether or not he could participate as a fan and come to the race,” Earnhardt said. “They never said he totally had to be off the premises. If they had made that clear, we would have definitely worked within their guidelines.”
Eury believes France only found out about the loophole in suspensions this past week, and is now working to close it.
“I know he’s pretty mad about the whole deal,” Eury said. “But we went to the proper people and asked them what the rules were and what they wanted us to do. I just don’t think he knew, to be honest. Brian didn’t know what they were doing.”
Did what they were told
The teams involved insist their crew chiefs did nothing more than what NASCAR told them they could do during the suspension. Knaus and Letarte both traveled to New Hampshire last weekend to assist in preparations for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
“We stuck to exactly what they told us we can do,” said Gordon, the current points leader. “That’s why our crew chiefs were at New Hampshire. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do going forward.
“If they change those regulations, then we’ll live by them. But right now, we’re living by what they told us we can do.”
Suspended crew chiefs have been suspected of showing up at race tracks for years.
They could set up shop in a motorhome to be on hand to assist their driver and team. They could offer advice on setups, pore over practice data and counsel the crew on strategy. And although they weren’t on the pit box to make the split-second decisions on race day, they were close enough to the action to offer opinion.
Earnhardt said that’s all Eury was doing, and it was the same support Eury could have provided from his living room.
“We were going to utilize him whether he was at the track or not,” Earnhardt said. “He has a scanner and he can hear what’s going on. If he heard something or listened to how I was explaining the car, he might call ... on the cell phone and say, ‘This is what you should do.’
“But that was going to happen if he was at the race track or not. He can sit in his living room and we can upload the tire temperatures and all the notes from practice.”
NASCAR knows that, which is why series officials were somewhat lenient with the enforcement of the suspensions. They have no way to keep the crew chiefs out of the grandstands, the infield or the luxury suites, and they have no way of preventing them from communicating in some way with their team.
But Darby insisted the suspensions are still effective because banning a crew chief from the garage prohibits him from doing his job properly.
“The value of the crew chief is being able to touch the car, rub the car, smell the car, look at the driver, the eyes, all of that stuff,” Darby said. “That’s the value of a suspension. Me, personally, I don’t care if he’s watching a race from the grandstands. But when a crew chief that went through that is bold enough to throw it back at us, we’ll react to it.”
That’s what NASCAR believes Eury did at New Hampshire, and in interviews he’s had since his suspension lifted. It’s why Knaus and Letarte — who had not planned to be in Daytona this weekend, but were planning to attend races later this month — have now been informed they cannot be on track property.
And, if Eury isn’t careful, he might find himself watching the race outside the track with them.
“If Tony Jr. keeps running his yap, we could easily send him home for another six weeks,” Darby said.