Tony Stewart fine raises confusion
After criticisms over secret fines issued to NASCAR drivers for statements made critical of the sanctioning body, decisions made by NASCAR higher-ups and certain components on the race car, NASCAR, earlier this year, made an addition to its rule book that allowed for fines to penalize drivers and competitors for “disparaging” comments made about NASCAR, NASCAR officials, media members and fans and for bad off-track behavior.
The addition, listed as section 12.8.1 in the 2016 rule book includes the following:
“Member actions that could result in a $10,000-$50,000 fine and/or probation — disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership; verbal abuse of a NASCAR official, media member, fans, etc.; intentionally damaging another vehicle under yellow or red-flag conditions or on pit road with no one around.”
I admit, when I first red the aforementioned addition to the rule book, it seemed pretty simple, and I thought it was a good idea to have a clear cut rule on the books that NASCAR could point to when an applicable incident presented itself. I still fell that way.
What’s as clear as mud to me, though, is the implementation of this rule. It underwent its first test drive, if that’s what you want to call it, on Thursday in the form of a $35,000 fine to Tony Stewart because of remarks he made over his disapproval over the elimination of the five lug nut rule.
Here’s the gist of what Stewart said on the topic during an interview on Wednesday:
“I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt. You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel that hurts one of them. With all the crap we’re going through with all the safety stuff, and for them to sit there and sit on their hands on this one, this is not a game you play with safety, and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.”
Stewart wasn’t the first driver critical of the now-allowable practice of tightening fewer than five lug nuts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. says it freaks him out, while Greg Biffle referred to missing lug nuts as a “ticking time bomb.”
Neither of those drivers caught NASCAR’s wrath. Sure, their comments weren’t presented quite as bluntly as Stewart, but still. The message is still pretty much the same, isn’t it? Even if it’s not, here’s another argument to consider.
What about Kyle Busch’s behavior after the Auto Club Speedway Xfinity Series race. You remember one of those rare Xfinity races he hasn’t won this year. Anyway, after gutting down a tire on the final lap and finishing second, Busch was critical of the lack of a caution. He went so far as to accuse NASCAR of “fixing” the race.
Busch was, indeed, fined $10,000 in the days that followed, but according to NASCAR’s penalty announcement, the fine wasn’t for what Busch said, but instead it was for what he did, and what he did was ignore a NASCAR directive to report to the media center for post-race press conferences.
So, let me get this straight. It’s okay to accuse NASCAR of “fixing” races but expressing concern over a safety issue is a no-no? That just doesn’t seem right to me. Maybe I’m missing something.
Could this be sour grapes? Stewart has been critical of NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France’s management style and of the fact that NASCAR’s Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development isn’t a real racer. Come to think of it, maybe the fine was based somehow on repetitive behavior. But that’s not exactly clear.
Seeming inconsistencies aside, I have another issue, here. I get that penalties are definitely called for when it comes to disparaging remarks personally attacking someone, i.e. racial slurs, other heritage-related insults, sexist remarks, etc., but that’s not what this is all about. Stewart’s comments didn’t get anywhere near that ballpark.
Don’t we want drivers to feel free to express their opinions? I do. Couldn’t penalties like the one issued to Stewart result in more drivers giving “vanilla” interviews? Who wants that? I don’t.
I applaud Stewart’s fellow members of the Drivers Council for stepping up and deciding to pay Stewart’s fine. It’s a statement from drivers telling NASCAR that drivers’ voices matter.
“I don’t know where the line is, I don’t know if there is a line; obviously there is a line, but obviously, we just believe that you should be able to express your opinion as long as you’re not just totally trashing the sport itself or anything like that. I think every situation is different, but we’ll just move forward from it,” unofficial Drivers Council spokesman Denny Hamlin said on Friday.
I don’t always agree with Hamlin, but in this case, well said, Hamlin. Well said.