In the aftermath of the recent decision to fine driver Tony Stewart for comments critical of the sanctioning body, drivers and crew chiefs are once again left to wonder what they can (and cannot) say.
Last week, just hours after announcing his triumphant return from a fractured lumbar vertebra suffered in a February off-road accident, Stewart was docked $35,000 for comments critical of NASCAR. In announcing Stewart’s penalty, NASCAR cited the specific section of the rulebook that he violated; Section 12.8.1, which forbids “disparaging the sport and/or its leadership.”
Unfortunately, NASCAR did not specify which of Stewart’s comments landed him in hot water.
Was it his assertion that NASCAR had “totally dropping the ball and… made a grossly bad decision” by not requiring teams to install five lug nuts on each wheel during pit stops? Or was it his insinuation that the sanctioning body had suddenly become lax on safety, saying “this is not a game you play.”
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France attempted to clarify his stance on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint today, saying that NASCAR reacts only when drivers “denigrate the racing product (by) saying we don’t care about safety, or that the product is not good.”
France spoke specifically about Stewart’s comments for the first time, saying the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion “alluded to us not caring about safety… and said we were not talking to (the competitors) about safety” leading to the $35,000 fine.
France’s comments shed light on the specifics of Stewart’s penalty, they were
too late to do the maximum amount of good. The sanctioning body’s insistence on quoting chapter and verse
from their rulebook – without citing specifics of the individual penalty – leaves
competitors, media members and fans with no choice but to speculate on what
violation may have been committed and where the sanctioning body stands.
|NASCAR's Brian France|
Speculation is never good, especially when accompanied by lingering questions about other comments in recent weeks that went unpunished.
Last month, Kyle Busch blasted race officials for not throwing a caution flag when his left-front tire exploded on the final lap of a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway; a caution that would have sent Busch to Victory Lane. Instead, NASCAR chose to allow the event to race to a conclusion, with Austin Dillon bypassing Busch’s crippled racer in the final turn to claim the checkered flag.
“Debris all over the race track and they don’t throw a yellow,” said an angry Busch over his in-car radio. “I’m just so pleased with you, NASCAR. Thanks. Y’all are awesome. Fixing races.”
Busch was not sanctioned by NASCAR for his “race fixing” allegations, leaving question marks in the minds of many about what is (and isn’t) allowed. France insists that the sanctioning body has drawn “a clear line” in terms of driver conduct, but competitors remain uncertain where that line lies.
Danica Patrick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, said today that Stewart’s fine makes her less likely to speak her mind in the future.
“I have definitely thought, `Will I get in trouble for saying that,’” said Patrick on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio. “And now, I think I should just say nothing.
“(The fines) are taking character away from people,” said Patrick. “The drivers’ ability to have opinions and be fiery and opinionated and cause a ruckus is going away. It’s a slippery slope. (NASCAR) doesn’t want anything bad said about them, because it’s their brand. But on the other side of things, you still have to let people be themselves. You still have to let the drivers have personality. That’s what makes (the sport) interesting, and I have told them that. So if they fine me for saying this, I can at least say, `I told you this already in the privacy of the NASCAR trailer.’
“When I think of NASCAR, I think of `Boys Have At It;” rough, aggressive racing... (and) being able to do whatever you want. (But now), that seems a lot less possible. There haven’t been a lot of times when I’ve had to keep my mouth shut when I wanted to say something, but it has crossed my mind a few times that, `I don’t know what they (NASCAR) would think of that.’”
France said Stewart had opportunities to address his concerns directly with NASCAR, but never did.
“He’s a member of the Drivers Council and a team owner, as well,” said France. “He has a direct line to speak to us… which he did not do. And when you imply that NASCAR doesn’t care about safety, you can expect a reaction from us.”
France also reasserted his previously stated view that NASCAR allows far more criticism from its athletes than any other professional sport, saying, “Our line is way out there compared to any other league.”
The NASCAR CEO is correct in his assertion that Stewart’s penalty is “not a big deal” when compared to those levied by other sports. In the stick-and-ball world, coaches and managers are routinely ejected from games merely for questioning officials’ calls. Six-figure fines are routine for anyone who second-guesses the referee, much less impugns his integrity. NASCAR can do better, however, by sharing more information, in a more timely fashion.
With the specifics of Stewart’s penalty now made public, France and his fellow NASCAR officials need to be equally forthcoming in the future, explaining immediately (and specifically) why penalties have been levied, thereby short-circuiting all the speculation and uncertainty. With a clear sense of what is allowed, drivers can feel more free to express themselves, rather than biting their tongue in moments of controversy or unhappiness.
Most of us have no problem with the umpire calling balls and strikes.
Just tell us where the Strike Zone lies.