CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points Tuesday, and his crew chief was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races for an illegal part at Darlington Raceway.
The penalty, for illegal modifications to the rear wing on Earnhardt's Car of Tomorrow, is a significant setback in his team's bid to win a Nextel Cup title before racing's most popular driver leaves after the season.
Dale Earnhardt Inc. will appeal, team president Max Siegel said. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who is also Earnhardt's cousin, is expected to work Saturday night's All-Star race because suspensions do not begin until the appeals process is heard.
"We are not disputing the ruling," Siegel said. "But we are appealing the severity of the penalty because the penalty itself is not spelled out in the rule book."
NASCAR, however, sent a March 21 memo outlining penalties for specific infractions on the Car of Tomorrow and specifically listed fines of $100,000, points deductions and suspension.
The penalty knocked Earnhardt from 12th in the standings - the final qualifying position for the Chase for the championship - to 14th. He's now 721 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon, and 54 points out of Chase contention.
"The team is like a family and they are pretty resilient," Siegel said. "I met with them all this morning and I didn't get any sense at all that anybody was freaking out. Everyone went into a â€˜What do we do now?' mode. It is what it is - it was a mistake, and it's unfortunate. But we'll move on."
Junior was not available for comment Tuesday.
Earnhardt announced last week he will leave DEI, his late father's company, after the season. Although the team has been in turmoil since the announcement, the driver and crew have promised to race hard for the rest of the year.
NASCAR inspectors said Earnhardt's rear wing was improperly mounted when it was checked Saturday at Darlington. The brackets used to mount the piece were confiscated.
Eury, who has never had a major infraction during his seven years as a Cup crew chief, said the problem with the wing was not intentional. He said the brackets were an old set that had been used during a test session.
"It was kind of just a bad deal, a part that got on there that shouldn't have," he said. "There was a lot of offseason testing for NASCAR. There's been like three different kinds of brackets on there and it just happened to be one of the old-style brackets."
"It really wasn't that big of a deal," he added. "It really didn't change anything."
But NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said the infraction was blatant.
The car initially passed a pre-qualifying inspection, and when the wing did not pass the next day, it was removed for further examination. Once off the car, NASCAR discovered the brackets had been intentionally modified, Pemberton said.
"There is no doubt whatsoever" it was intentional, Pemberton said. "We are very surprised and disappointed in Tony."
Pemberton said the pieces will be on display in the NASCAR trailer all weekend for teams to examine.
The infraction was the first to be found on the NASCAR-designed Car of Tomorrow, which has strict templates that leave little wiggle room for a crew chief. The severity of the penalty was the racing body's way of informing teams it will not permit alterations of any kind to the CoT.
"We communicated to the teams earlier in the year that any modifications to these parts that had already been certified would be dealt with severely," Pemberton said.
It also follows a season-long crackdown on cheating that began at the Daytona 500, when NASCAR caught five teams breaking the rules. Six crew members were suspended and Michael Waltrip's crew chief was fined $100,000 - the largest monetary fine in series history.
Now Eury has matched it, and Earnhardt said after his eighth-place finish Sunday in the Dodge Avenger 500 he would cover any fine his cousin received.
"Whatever he needs me to do," Earnhardt said.
This is the most significant penalty Earnhardt and his team have received. He was docked 25 points and fined $10,000 for cursing during a TV interview after a victory at Talladega in 2004.
That deduction knocked him out of the points lead. It was the last time Earnhardt has seriously challenged for the Cup championship.
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