Ryan: In the NASCAR lug nut debate, honor can be realized by making things tight

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – In a sport known for pits of cheating vipers and dens of conniving thieves, here is a quaint way of solving the latest controversy engulfing NASCAR.

Use the honor system.

Ask teams merely to do their best to try to fasten five lug nuts.

The language of the new rule leaves little wiggle room: A car with fewer than five lug nuts on any wheel in postrace will equal a $20,000 fine and a one-race crew chief suspension. All cars will be checked after Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. There seems little chance for dispensation of any sort.

NASCAR would be served best by mostly enforcing the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

If you cheat and deliberately hit four lug nuts or fewer, we’ll catch you. And if we don’t, karma will.

But if you attempted to tighten five lug nuts and didn’t succeed — if somehow your car still finished a race with fewer than the required 20 — we’ll cut you a break if you can make a legitimate case that you tried.

So just try.

From drivers to fans to multinational insurance companies whose actuaries’ palms get much sweatier at the specter of wheels pinwheeling into the grandstands, that effort is truly what matters.

Fastening fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel can have disastrous consequences.

Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. understandably spooked about the possibility of a loose wheel resulting from fewer lug nuts?

Watch the video of his vicious crash in October 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Why did the discussion ratchet up in intensity as soon as fan injuries were implied?

Because when tires have bounced into the grandstands (granted, in other series), people have died – three at a time, in two cases.

These scenarios have been forgotten as the conversations around lug nuts consistently have devolved into a series of predictable arguments that are as substantive as arguing with a 5-year-old.

Moreover, they miss the most important point:

Without a rule governing lug nuts, it had become a competitive disadvantage to choose the safest and sanest path to ensuring the well-being of a driver – and possibly fans.

For much of its 68 years of existence, NASCAR said having fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel was a situation so untenable, you had to return to the pits immediately to fix it if it was spotted.

When officials were downsized in the pits last year in favor of a high-tech monitoring system relying on HD cameras, there was a tacit acknowledgment that teams might push the envelope. But the degree to which it brazenly was tested this year couldn’t have been anticipated.

As the trend spiraled into a procession of countless green-flag pit stops for loose wheels at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, it had become untenable – the latest of many major decisions that were paved with good intentions but littered with unintended consequences.

Tony Stewart, whose voice of reason lobbying for change earned him an inexplicably misguided $35,000 fine, was absolutely right. If someone got hurt because of the rash of loose wheels caused by intentionally skipping lug nuts, NASCAR would struggle to explain how it allowed a competitor – or much worse, a fan – to be injured in a situation that was eminently predictable and utterly avoidable.

The detractors have said none of this is on NASCAR. “It’s up to the teams. No one is forcing them to do four lug nuts or three. If they want to be safer, do five.”

It’s as if this were comparable to employing a setup that might gain a few tenths of a second over the course of a green-flag run at the risk of minimally increasing the chances of a spin.

But it’s not that simple. This isn’t the same as making a qualifying lap and hoping the wheels stick at breakneck speeds entering Turn 1, knowing the odds are good they will.

Yes, NASCAR is an inherently dangerous endeavor requiring incessant choices of variable risks that are necessary to perform well. Every flick of the wheel could be construed as fraught with peril.

Lug nuts don’t fall in that category, though. You can’t put the onus on teams to decide whether it’s wise to do something that knowingly puts drivers — and possibly fans – at greater risk while improving their competitive fortunes.

Teams always will make the wrong choice in that case. They are hard-wired to scour rulebooks and sponsor contracts in pursuit of any and every possible advantage, operating in the ethically gray areas demanded by a sport borne from bootleggers outrunning the law. Whether bending the rules or poaching sponsors, caginess and cunning often are celebrated and encouraged.

That’s intrinsic to the nature of competition.

Skipping lug nuts, however, isn’t.

It’s intentionally doing a less than perfect job on safety and praying that fate will handle the rest.

Stewart is a prime example in this regard. When NASCAR mandated head and neck restraint systems in 2001, who was among the last to comply with the edict?

Stewart. Why? Because he didn’t like how it restricted his line of sight and impeded his ability to drive. He couldn’t be left to make that decision on his own. NASCAR had to make it for him.

The same holds true with lug nuts. Teams can’t be trusted with knowing whether three or four lug nuts are worth having a wheel come off at 200 mph and putting drivers — and possibly fans — in jeopardy.

That’s a NASCAR call. And that was Smoke’s point when he correctly said “this is not a game you play with safety, and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this.”

In fastening fewer than five lug nuts, teams were allowed to determine – and increase – the likelihood of a wheel falling off a car at speed.

Teams don’t get to set the limits on safety standards. The sanctioning body always should.

Instead, this was the message being sent in leaving a hole in the rulebook on lug nuts:

We want you to knowingly put drivers in a hazardous situation. Not because it’ll make for a thrilling pass, or because you’ll outwit the competition with an intriguing fuel-mileage gambit. We want you to do it because you’ll gain a half-second in the pits, which will be indiscernible to the naked eye and thus offer zero entertainment value.

In fact, it’ll come with a double-heaping of dread for the driver and team as you sweat through the waning laps not knowing if a broken collarbone or worse lurks around the next turn.

That message has changed this weekend at Talladega, and thankfully, there already have been signs it’s taking root.

There were five lug nuts on every car checked after Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega

Were the pit crews just trying harder to be more attuned to safety?

There’s honor in that.