TONY STEWART has been called before NASCAR officials numerous times in his nine-year Nextel Cup career for overaggressive driving, tiffs with the media and spats with drivers, but last Friday the racer's latest trip to the principal's office was for a more grave offense. He had touched a raw nerve in NASCAR with his public accusation that officials manipulate the outcome of races.
On April 24, during his weekly Sirius Satellite radio show, Stewart compared NASCAR to pro wrestling and claimed the sanctioning body was "playing God" by using unnecessary late-race cautions to bring the race cars closer together for a more competitive finish. "I guess NASCAR thinks, 'Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing, too,'" Stewart said on the air. "I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR. I don't know that they've run a fair race all year."
Those comments—which Stewart retracted after his early-morning meeting at Talladega Superspeedway—provided ammunition for stock car bashers, who insist that NASCAR isn't a legitimate competition because races are somehow choreographed. On occasion it's not hard to see why a casual observer might get the idea that NASCAR can be meddlesome. Though it's not as prevalent in recent years, because cars have become more uniform, the governing body has a long history of tinkering with car specs in the middle of the season. That leads to drivers squawking that one make is being favored over the others—and occasionally to grumbling that NASCAR wants its popular drivers to be successful. (Conspiracy theorists had a field day after Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400, the first race at Daytona after his father had died on the same track four months earlier.)
While it might appear that NASCAR is making up rules on the fly, such flexibility is necessary to keep the drivers safe and the playing field level. And you can't argue with the results: There have been seven different Cup champions in the past eight years, and over the last 40 races the average margin of victory has been 1.657 seconds. By comparison, over the last 40 Formula One races—the most popular racing series in the rest of the world—the average margin has been 10.6 seconds.
But Stewart accused NASCAR of something far more sinister than controlling what transpires in the garage: pulling the strings once a race has started. Stewart's outburst was triggered by the high number of yellow flags this year for debris on the track. Through nine races NASCAR has called for a total of 23 cautions for debris; in three races there has been a debris caution in the last 20 laps. Stewart contended that most of those yellow flags were unnecessary and put out only to pull the leaders back to the pack and set up a TV-friendly finish.
One rival team's spotter—whose job entails watching the track through a pair of binoculars—says, "Tony was way, way out of line. I've been spotting races for more than a decade, and I can put my hand on a Bible and swear that NASCAR doesn't throw cautions late in the race just to try to get a certain driver a victory. It's only done for safety. But Tony's frustrated because his season isn't going good, so he attacks the integrity of the sport. It's ridiculous." Stewart's season got worse on Friday afternoon when NASCAR fined him $10,000 and placed him on probation, ostensibly for skipping a mandatory postrace media session in Phoenix on April 21, though it was clear that NASCAR was also punishing him for his rant.
Says driver Greg Biffle, "On the track NASCAR has the ability to regulate what happens, but so does a referee in the NFL. Debris is a huge safety issue because the tiniest piece can blow a tire. I think NASCAR does a good job monitoring it." NASCAR typically places officials at 25 points around the track to make sure that the racing surface is free of rubber, sheet metal, plastic, paper and even beer bottles. If something is spotted, a team of NASCAR officials in the control tower above the track is alerted and a snap judgment on whether to throw a caution is made.
It's a subjective call, so if NASCAR is serious about showing fans that there's no such thing as a phantom caution, the decision-making process needs to be made as transparent as possible. NASCAR has invited Stewart into the control tower to watch an upcoming Busch series race. If Stewart sees that the process is fair and reports that with the same zeal with which he leveled his accusations, the improbable would happen: Something good for the sport would spring from one of Stewart's brain cramps.
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Headache of the Week
FOR KYLE BUSCH, happiness is seeing Talladega in his rearview mirror. Busch walked away from an end-over-end roll in last Saturday's Busch series race (left) and smacked the wall in Sunday's Cup race. "I've never been on my lid before," he said. "I'm just hoping all of this is over."
Request of the Week
FLUSH WITH camaraderie, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked fans to throw toilet paper instead of dangerous beer cans at Jeff Gordon if he passed Dale Sr. on the career wins list. Gordon (left) did, at Talladega on Sunday. Alas, the brew still flew. "I thought Junior had more power," said Gordon. "I saw maybe one roll."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND
ROB CARR/AP (GORDON)
MARK YOUNG/AP (BUSCH)