Tony Stewart announced Wednesday that he had been cleared by his doctors to return to racing this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. He suffered a burst L1 vertebrae fracture on Jan. 31 driving an off-road vehicle and has missed the first eight races of the 2016 season.
NASCAR then promptly announced that Stewart had been given a medical waiver meaning he is eligible to compete in the Sprint Cup Chase for the championship. The news quickly sparked a celebration among his fans as fellow drivers also welcomed him back. The celebration, however, was short-lived.
Only hours after his announcement, NASCAR issued a $35,000 fine to Stewart for statements he made on Wednesday concerning NASCAR’s decision not to monitor whether all five lug nuts are on each wheel during pit stops. The change was instituted in 2015 as a result of new pit-road technology which meant there would no longer be an official in each pit box.
As a result, some teams may not use all five lug nuts or may not sufficiently tighten all of them in order to decrease the time spent in the pit box in an effort to gain track position. Stewart voiced concern over the possible repercussions of this decision as teams continue to push the boundaries of safety on SiriusXM NASCAR radio on “The Morning Drive” program.
He prefaced his comments by saying NASCAR had “done such a good job since Dale Earnhardt’s death of working hard to make sure that the sport is as safe for the drivers as it can be and for the fans and crew members and everybody involved.
“And then they do a rule that doesn’t dictate how many lug nuts you have to have on the car, Stewart continued. “And now guys are leaving more and more of them off each week to try to have that money stop at the end to get two positions that you may not be able to gain back on the track.”
He went on to say that he thought it was “a huge step backwards for the sport. I think it’s bad for the fans and I think most of all it’s putting the drivers in jeopardy. I think it’s putting their safety in jeopardy and I think it’s wrong.” Stewart summed it up by stating that “safety should not be compromised because of competition,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
You can listen to the entire audio here.
Stewart was fined for violating Section 12 of the rule book which addresses member conduct guidelines. And while he is certainly not the first driver to be fined for remarks considered to be disparaging of NASCAR and/or its leadership and the rule book leaves much to interpretation, one has to question the validity of the ruling in this instance.
Just last week at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. commented on the subject saying, “It freaks me out. I was blown away that NASCAR quit officiating that aspect. I could not believe that was the choice that they made. But that is the world we live in.”
Greg Biffle has also weighed in, going as far as saying, “I feel like it’s a ticking time bomb. The left rear tire’s gonna fall off of one of these cars and spin out and the thing is gonna go driver’s side into the fence and we’re gonna hurt somebody. He went on to say,”There’s five on there for a reason.”
Neither driver was fined for their remarks, another example of the inconsistency that plagues NASCAR and infuriates its fans.
Stewart has received support not only from his fans but from his competitors as well. NBC reported Thursday evening that Denny Hamlin, a member of the Driver’s Council, released a statement on behalf of the council.
“We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner. While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a Council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine.”
Though NASCAR has a reputation to protect, matters of safety should always be addressed openly and not relegated to the shadows. More importantly, when several veterans of the sport are concerned enough to speak out, NASCAR would be well advised to listen rather than worrying about public perception.