Ryan: NASCAR v. Stewart is complicated mix of politics, policy and possibly personal

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Welcome back, “Smoke!”

Now, shut up. It’s how we do things here.

There has been much talk for the past year about how the NASCAR garage — where Tony Stewart finally will return this weekend — was a changed place.

Kumbaya! Collaboration! Cooperation!


It seemed the happy land of productive driver councils and collective rules decisions until Thursday afternoon, the day after Stewart spoke out – strongly – about the recent spate of loose wheels in Sprint Cup.

The dangerous trend is the direct result of a decision NASCAR made last year to stop policing the fastening of five lug nuts per wheel. Though stiff penalties remain if wheels come loose, teams are incentivized for skipping lug nuts and risking driver and fan safety in the hopes of gaining positions.

Stewart, who sits on the ballyhooed driver council and also has a larger seat at the table as a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, had the temerity to suggest that 1) this was an unwise concept; 2) someone eventually would be injured, making it worse; and 3) NASCAR immediately should take action.

NASCAR agreed with the swift response – fining Stewart $35,000 for conduct unbecoming, or in NASCAR Rule Book parlance, “disparaging leadership.”

The stunning move came roughly six hours after the three-time Sprint Cup champion had announced his comeback this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

Rather than celebrating the return of a mega-personality whose charisma and magnetism sorely have been missed (in a series that also has lacked the starpower of retired Jeff Gordon), NASCAR shifted the focus to familiar scorn.

Despite encouraging stars to showcase their personalities, NASCAR also has made a habit of fining them.

Denny Hamlin was docked $25,000 in March 2013 for comments about the new Gen 6 car’s quality of racing. In 2011, when NASCAR still was penalizing drivers in secrecy, Brad Keselowski lost $25,000 for badmouthing fuel injection, and Ryan Newman was fined for denigrating the integrity of racing at Talladega Superspeedway.

But in Stewart’s case, the fine was for what, precisely?

It’s hard to say. The infraction was vague, and the offending words went unspecified. The most inflammatory things Stewart said were:

“With all the crap we’re going through with all the safety stuff, and for them to sit there and sit on their hands on this one. If you only want us to put one lug nut on, then give us hubs that have one lug nut like an IndyCar or Formula One car and then we don’t have to worry about it.

“But this is not a game you play with safety, and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.”

Is that worthy of a $35,000 sanction?

Consider these quotes before you answer.

“I feel like it’s a ticking time bomb.”

“We’re going to hurt someone. For what purpose?”

“We absolutely did the wrong thing a year and a half ago when NASCAR said we’re not going to police lug nuts anymore.”

Those were the strong opinions of Greg Biffle, who spent much of a Thursday morning interview on SiriusXM blasting the practice of allowing teams to skip lug nuts. He wasn’t punished.

There was no explanation from NASCAR why Stewart was fined while Biffle wasn’t.

There hardly was any official explanation of Stewart’s punishment from NASCAR beyond a spreadsheet that listed the date, offender, dollar amount and rule violated as if it were a parking citation.

So what made Stewart’s situation different?

Was it beyond a matter of policy … but also personal?

Stewart wasn’t punished in mid-January when he challenged the presence of NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on race weekends.

“I want to see (France) walking through the garage more,” Stewart told SiriusXM’s Dave Moody. “I want to see him being more active than just showing up and patting the sponsors on the back and going up in the suite. I want to see him down there in the trenches with everybody and understanding what’s truly going on. I think that’s where he needs to be for a while.”

In multiple sessions with reporters, Stewart referenced a meeting he had with France at Pocono Raceway last summer.

“Brian France cautioned me on making too many suggestions last year,” he said. “So I’m going to try to keep my ideas to myself a little bit.”

The comments were made a few weeks before NASCAR announced new rules and punishments for behavior.

They also came roughly a week before Stewart fractured his back and fell off the radar for nearly three months. Though he frequently began appearing at the track, he had spoken only a few times with reporters before a 15-minute group interview Wednesday.

In his first extensive session with the media, Stewart managed to say something that rubbed France the wrong way.

“Nobody has led, done more and achieved more in safety than we have,” France told the Associated Press Sports Editors organization at a Thursday meeting in New York shortly before Stewart’s penalty was announced. “It is a never-ending assignment, and we accept that. We do take offense that anything we do is somehow leading toward an unsafe environment, so he’s wrong on that.”

Few would suggest Stewart is always right. He is a firebrand whose passion sometimes overrides the meaning and message of his crusades. But his compassion also is legendary within NASCAR, and his purposeful rants are rooted in good faith.

Speaking out vociferously as he did Wednesday is what he does.

Punishing drivers for doing that?

Thursday showed that’s what NASCAR still does, too.

COTA Truck race results: Zane Smith wins

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Reigning series champion Zane Smith won Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas for the second year in a row.

The victory is Smith’s second of this year.

MORE: COTA Truck race results

MORE: Truck points after COTA

Kyle Busch finished second and was followed by Ty Majeski, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain.

The key moment came when Parker Kligerman‘s truck came to a stop on the frontstretch at Lap 28. Smith, running second, made it to pit road before it was closed. Busch, who was leading, had already passed pit road entrance.

Smith gained the lead with the move, while Busch had to pit under the caution and restarted 16th. Smith was able to build a lead and beat Busch by 5.4 seconds.

Stage 1 winner: Christian Eckes

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Who had a good race: Ty Majeski’s third-place finish is his best of the season. … Tyler Ankrum’s fourth-place finish is his best of the year. … Corey Heim has finished sixth two races in a row. … Rookie Nick Sanchez finished seventh, giving him back-to-back top 10s.

Who had a bad race: Parker Kligerman was running third when electrical issues forced him to stop on track just after the end of the second stage. … After winning the first stage, Christian Eckes had mechanical issues and had to pit for repairs, costing him several laps.

Notable: Front Row Motorsports has won the Truck COTA race all three years. Todd Gilliland won the race in 2021 and Zane Smith has won it the past two years.

Next: The series races April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
COTA winner Zane Smith’s truck catches fire after he did his burnout on the frontstretch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

COTA Cup starting lineup


Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who has won two of the first five races of the season, will lead the Cup field to the green flag Sunday at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron will be joined on the front row of the starting lineup by Tyler Reddick, the only driver to win multiple races at road courses last year.

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Austin Cindric starts third and is joined in the second row by Jordan Taylor, who is filling in for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick car.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

William Byron wins Cup pole at COTA


William Byron will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron won the pole with a lap of 93.882 mph around the 3.41-mile road course Saturday. He becomes the first Cup driver to win a pole at four different road courses: Charlotte Roval (2019), Road America (2021), Indianapolis road course (2021) and COTA (2023).

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Byron will be joined on the front row by Tyler Reddick, who had posted the fastest lap in Friday’s practice and fastest lap in the opening round of qualifying Saturday. Reddick qualified at 93.783 mph.

Austin Cindric (93.459 mph) qualified third. Former IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, substituting for an injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, qualified fourth with a lap of 93.174 mph. AJ Allmendinger (93.067) will start fifth.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

Ross Chastain, who won this event a year ago, qualified 12th. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen qualified 22nd, former world champion Jenson Button qualified 24th, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson qualified 31st and IndyCar driver Conor Daly qualified 35th.

Sunday Cup race at Circuit of the Americas: Start time, TV info, weather


Is this Toyota’s weekend?

Chevrolet won the first four races of the season. Ford won last weekend with Joey Logano at Atlanta. Is it Toyota’s turn to win its first Cup race of the season? Or does Chevrolet return to dominance?

Chevrolet drivers have won 11 of the past 12 Cup races on road courses. The exception was Christopher Bell‘s win for Toyota at the Charlotte Roval in last year’s playoffs. Chevrolets have won the two previous Cup races at COTA: Chase Elliott in 2021 and Ross Chastain in 2022.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: Brendan Hunt, who plays Coach Beard in “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+, will give the command to start engines at 3:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. … Drivers meeting at 2:45 p.m. … Driver introductions at 3:05 p.m. … Invocation will be given by Sage Steele, ESPN broadcaster, at 3:30 p.m. … Jaime Camil, actor from “Schmigadoon” on Apple TV+, will perform the national anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 68 laps (231.88 miles) on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 15. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Pre-race coverage begins at 2 p.m. on FS1 and moves to Fox at 3 p.m. … Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and will also stream at goprn.com; SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.


FORECAST: Weather Underground – Mostly cloudy with a high of 80 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

STARTING LINEUP: COTA Cup starting lineup

LAST YEAR: Ross Chastain scored his first career Cup win in a physical battle with AJ Allmendinger on the final lap. Alex Bowman finished second. Christopher Bell placed third.


Friday 5: What to do about lack of respect on the track?

Dr. Diandra: With Chase Elliott out, these are the best Next Gen road racers

Drivers to watch at COTA

North Wilkesboro’s racing surface will prove challenging to drivers 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Christopher Bell is new No. 1