JOLIET, Ill. - Tony Stewart's tirade at the end of Saturday's Pepsi 400 provided even more evidence of two alarming trends: First is Stewart's penchant to juvenile outbursts. Second is NASCAR's ability to provide consistent rule in stock car racing.
What Stewart did at the end of the race was wrong. What NASCAR did, however, was even worse.
Drivers were warned before the race that the track apron was off limits. In the past, some have used the apron at Daytona International Speedway as a passing lane. NASCAR put a yellow line at the bottom of the inside groove and declared anything left of the line was out of bounds.
With four laps remaining, Stewart's Pontiac veered hard left below the yellow line, but the tire mark on the passenger door proved the maneuver wasn't intentional. He moved left to avoid Johnny Benson's car. Anything less would have created a massive crash.
NASCAR issued the black flag for moving below the yellow line. Stewart ignored it. They waved it again. And again. Stewart ignored the penalty and was the sixth person to cross the finish line.
Moments later, Stewart had a meltdown. Already on probation for slamming into Jeff Gordon's parked car on pit road after the race at Bristol, Tenn., Stewart took out his frustration by slapping a recorder from the hand of a reporter, then kicking it under one of the team's transporters. Then he went after Gary Nelson, NASCAR's competition director.
Stewart was stopped just short of turning a tantrum into battery. Car owner Joe Gibbs, who was animated on pit road while he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli argued the intent of their driver's move, grabbed Stewart just as he lunged toward NASCAR's top cop.
The sanctioning body could have suspended Stewart, but it then would have to offer an explanation to his sponsor, The Home Depot, which is the official home improvement store of NASCAR.
They instead hurt him in other ways. They dropped him to 26th in the final rundown - the last car on the lead lap -. The result was the loss of 65 points in the series championship race.
On Wednesday, it fined him $10,000 for "actions and conduct following the Pepsi 400," extended his probation until the end of the racing season and required him to offer formal apologies to the reporter and NASCAR.
Stewart's actions were childish and boorish. His flare-ups have become far too routine. His considerable talent is too often overshadowed by his temper and immaturity.
That said, Stewart was right to be angry.
NASCAR's rules seemingly are implemented at a whim. Other drivers, including his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, went below the yellow line during the night, but none was penalized. The sanctioning body decided to make an example of Stewart.
"He didn't intentionally go down there to pass (Benson), but we did go below the line, and that's what the rule says," Zipadelli said in his best damage-control tone. "It doesn't say, 'Depends how you get there.' It just says, 'If you do go below the line.' If you look at it that way, we're getting the penalty that is coming to us."
Zipadelli then tried to explain the actions of his driver. It's not the first time the crew chief has tried to make excuses for a driver who lets his emotions overwhelm common sense.
When a driver ignores the black flag, NASCAR rules call for his scorecard to be confiscated. If the sanctioning body had followed its own rules, Stewart shouldn't have been scored on the final lap, putting him a lap behind at the finish. NASCAR decided to issue an arbitrary penalty by making him the final car on the lead lap. Not only did the governing body pick and choose which drivers to penalize, but it also went against its own rulebook in the punishment phase. When an organization doesn't follow its own rules, it erodes credibility.
Dave Blaney was knocked out of contention to win the race when Stewart escaped the out of bounds area and bounced off Blaney's Dodge. After the race, Blaney yelled at Stewart in the garage.
A day later, Blaney called Stewart and apologized. He watched a replay of the incident - the same replay NASCAR watched - and he agreed Stewart was only acting defensively to avoid a crash.
"The first thing he said was he was sorry, and I told him there was no need to be saying that," Blaney said. "If I had been in his shoes, I would have done the same thing."
The question is, would NASCAR?
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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