If NASCAR has its way, the road rage that has erupted in recent Nextel Cup races is over.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said Thursday that Mike Helton, the sanctioning organization's president, will tell the drivers prior to Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway that such behavior will no longer be tolerated and that they will risk being suspended if there is more on-track retaliation.
"With what Mike is planning to do at the drivers' meetings on Saturday, prior to the Busch race, and on Sunday is going to sort of give our guys, I don't want to say a final warning, but I think they'll clearly understand that we're going to do what we need to," Hunter said Thursday in a telephone interview.
"If we need to suspend people, then, starting at Dover, that's a possibility."
The situation has been escalating for the past few weeks.
Three weeks ago at Bristol, Ryan Newman hit former series champion Dale Jarrett, an accident Newman insists was accidental. Jarrett came back later in the race and hit Newman, also involving other cars in the process. NASCAR called the latter wreck intentional and immediately parked Jarrett for two laps, effectively knocking him out of contention for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
In the Busch Series race at Richmond two weeks ago, reigning series champion and current points leader Martin Truex Jr. made an obscene gesture to Mike Wallace after being wrecked by Wallace. Truex was later fined and docked 25 points.
The next night, Robby Gordon wrecked Sterling Marlin in the Cup race at Richmond, an apparent payback for an incident earlier in the season at California Speedway. The two then took several shots at each other before NASCAR parked them both for five laps.
In the same race, Tony Raines hit Jamie McMurray in apparent retaliation for being knocked out of the way by McMurray earlier in the day. Raines also was parked for five laps.
Finally, things really got out of hand last Sunday in New Hampshire.
Cup champion Kurt Busch and Scott Riggs crashed on the second lap, with Busch theorizing that it was payback for an accident last month in Indy, which Riggs denied. But the bottom line was Busch's chances of winning another title were severely damaged with a 35th-place finish.
Kasey Kahne then smashed into the wall after being hit by rookie Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother. Kahne then purposely hit the younger Busch's car under the caution flag.
Then Gordon and Michael Waltrip crashed, with Gordon getting the worst of it. Gordon tried to retaliate under caution, backing his car toward Waltrip's, but missing and nearly hitting series points leader Tony Stewart instead. The frustrated Gordon then climbed from his car, waited for Waltrip to come around again behind the pace car and threw his helmet at Waltrip's car.
That resulted in Gordon being fined $35,000 and docked 50 points and Kahne fined $25,000 and losing 25 points. Waltrip was fined $10,000 and 25 pints for using an obscene gesture, and his car owner, Teresa Earnhardt, was penalized 25 points.
But NASCAR has been criticized roundly in some quarters this week for not suspending Gordon and Kahne, especially after Hunter's postrace comments in New Hampshire.
"We're going to do whatever we need to do, whether it's to park a guy for a week or park a guy for nine weeks. We're going to do whatever we need to do to prevent retaliation on the racetrack," Hunter said Sunday after the race.
Hunter said Thursday it is understandable that some people are critical of NASCAR's decision not to suspend the drivers.
"We're always in a position of doing what we think is right," he said. "What I talked about Sunday was we were going to do whatever we felt necessary to keep things under control, and we chose not to include, suspensions this past weekend."
It would not be unprecedented.
Jimmy Spencer was the last driver suspended, forced to sit out one race in 2003 for punching Kurt Busch after the two were in an accident at Michigan. Kevin Harvick was suspended for one race in 2002 when NASCAR did not allow him to compete in a Cup race at Martinsville, Va., as punishment for aggressive driving in a truck race the day before.
Hunter reiterated that NASCAR officials are no longer in a forgiving mood after the recent outbreak of on-track retaliation.
"I think we have always tried to let the athletes work this out among themselves, with us sort of getting in the middle and mediating, and I think suspensions for what happened this past weekend, it was discussed and we felt that the points and the fines were enough at that point," Hunter explained.
"But," he added, "we've always said that if the fines and the penalties don't work, we'll keep ratcheting it up. And, of course, a vacation is a possibility."
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