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.