NASCAR takes Stewart to task

The outspoken driver is fined $10, 000, but enduring a meeting at sunrise might have been worse.

Published April 28, 2007

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Tony Stewart saw the sunrise for the first time in years on Friday morning. Then he saw the light.

Three days after suggesting that NASCAR orchestrates race results with bogus caution flags - "playing God" - and is staged like professional wrestling, Stewart met at 6 a.m. with NASCAR president Mike Helton, vice president of competition Robin Pemberton and Nextel Cup series director John Darby. Five hours later he entered the media room at Talladega Superspeedway and, in essence, recanted everything.

"Pretty damned close, " he said, appealing to his reputation as someone who is respected for speaking his mind no matter the topic.

Whether contrite or playing the role NASCAR staged for him, Stewart insisted he had enough respect for those three officials to convince him that he was playing in a fair game. The debris cautions many drivers believe are used to bunch the field and make the racing more competitive, he said, are issued for a reason. He also demured to the power of NASCAR's hierarchy, saying, "it's a little tender for me to sit down right now."

NASCAR was heavy-handed in playing it soft. Stewart's No. 20 Chevrolet team was not allowed to unload its race car until the hourlong meeting concluded because NASCAR had not been able to contact him this week.

And Stewart was fined $10, 000 and placed on probation until Dec. 31 for shirking a mandatory media center visit after finishing second at Phoenix International Raceway last Saturday, but went unsanctioned for his suggestion that NASCAR controls race outcomes.

Stewart said his accusations sprouted from a spate of recent debris cautions, including a late one at Phoenix, the third race this season in which he led more than 100 laps without winning.

"I felt like I was right with what I was saying. It wasn't meant to hurt the France family or anybody else, " he said. "I said those things out of frustration because I care about the competition of this sport. Yeah, this is how I make my living, but when I'm out there racing, I care more about that trophy than I do the paycheck. The thought of it being not on the up and up like that was something I was frustrated about."

Stewart got a free pass, considering NASCAR's sweeping use of its "conduct detrimental to stock car racing" clause, what spokesman Jim Hunter called "strong disappointment" in his comments, and the precedent set by other leagues when officiating is questioned. That's nothing new for the two-time series champion. Hunter said NASCAR could have penalized Stewart but chose to deal with it "as a family."

Each of Stewart's many indiscretions in the series - off-track and on - has been followed fairly soon with a compromise or forgiveness. Hard feelings are soothed at a poker table or at a dirt track, or in this case in the halls of NASCAR power.

Stewart also holds sway in the garage because he is one of the few to discuss internal issues publicly.

"He's saying what he believes and he feels and that's it, " said driver Kasey Kahne, who is friends with Stewart though Stewart once wrecked Kahne out of the lead on a restart. "NASCAR doesn't like it and he obviously had to change his thoughts a little bit, but either way, he still says what he believes, and I think that's pretty awesome to tell you the truth.

"He says a lot of what other guys think but won't say because they're scared."

Stewart's complaints about debris cautions copied those of Jimmie Johnson at California Speedway this year, when Johnson lost a late lead and the race after a yellow the driver said was not justified. Stewart simply said it louder, longer and more outlandishly.

Ganassi Racing Team co-owner Felix Sabates, who entered the series when Bill France Jr. still ran NASCAR day-to-day, wasn't giving Stewart any passes on his comments this week.

"He's lucky he's not an NBA or NFL player, because he would have been suspended and fined already, " Sabates said. "NASCAR should suspend him, park him for the year. If he did this on Bill's watch, he'd have been sat already. Irresponsible comments like that affect the entire sport. If he was my driver, I would have fired him on the spot."