Originally created 04/10/03

Some say NASCAR bends rules for stars



MARTINSVILLE, Va. - There is no yellow out-of-bounds line at the Martinsville Speedway. But that doesn't mean Sunday's Virginia 500 will be free of controversy.

The fact that NASCAR makes up and enforces many of its rules on the run, often contradicting itself, creates the inevitable threat of controversy that stirs both contempt and interest in a sport that is always looking for a gripping storyline.

Controversy always has been the lifeblood of the stock car series. It sells tickets and drives television ratings. And while the sanctioning body makes token defenses of its actions - and nonactions - it is buoyed by the reality that a little turmoil is good for business.

Television ratings for the last two races have dropped. But after NASCAR failed to act on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pass below the yellow line to win last Sunday's race at Talladega, Ala., everyone expects a big jump in Fox's coverage this week.

"You don't want to promote controversy," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. "It (has) a way of promoting itself. I think controversy is part, a big part of, what propels sports, maybe even more so in our sport. And we think it's healthy."

NASCAR, which in the past three years has issued several stop-and-go penalties for passing below the yellow out of bounds line at Talladega and its sister track at Daytona Beach, Fla., drew sharp criticism for not penalizing Earnhardt Jr.'s race-winning pass. Some contend the sanctioning body plays favoritism with its star drivers, but most drivers said it magnifies a greater issue: NASCAR isn't consistent.

To make sure, NASCAR hasn't put its yellow line rule in its rule book. Like many of its other rulings, infractions often are met with impulsive and judgmental responses by the sanctioning body.

"I don't feel any competitor, any crew chief or car owner has a total explanation of the rule book as far as they are writing," Jimmy Spencer said. "But yet there are calls you sometimes wonder about."

Last Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. went below the yellow line as part of his winning pass of Matt Kenseth to win the Aaron's 499 at Talladega. NASCAR said it believed Earnhardt Jr. wasn't trying to gain an advantage by driving out of bounds, but at the same time it couldn't explain why he needed to go there as part of the winning pass.

Some drivers, including Sterling Marlin, suggested Earnhardt's popularity may have affected NASCAR's thought process. After all, having him win under controversial circumstances - much like many of his father's victories - was more compelling than anyone else winning.

"If they black-flagged him, they might have been afraid of a riot," Marlin said. "They might have torn the grandstands down."

Marlin's team manager, Andy Graves, said he would ask NASCAR this week at the Martinsville Speedway to explain why his driver was penalized at Daytona and Earnhardt Jr. escaped similar sanctions for doing the same thing.

"It doesn't really matter what the rules are at the end of the day," Graves said. "It's just like Sterling said, as long as they're consistent with their calls. The last two weeks, I think they've made a couple of blunders remaining consistent."

Once the race starts at Martinsville, NASCAR knows most of the firestorm from a week ago will be forgotten. The sanctioning body, and more importantly its fans and race teams, then will focus on the next controversy, its next compelling storyline.

"In the end, we're not going to win in a court of public opinion," Hunter said. "We would love to avoid controversy but we're realistic to know the odds favor one or two controversies every week."