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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Breaking the Rules Just Ain’t What It Used To Be

Just when you thought it was safe to go out of the house,

NASCAR goes and does it again. The “it” in question is the decision to make an arbitrary call with no regard to the rulebook or precedent set in previous years or weeks. Within a seven-day stretch, NASCAR made a strong statement about what it means for a driver to be on probation and then completely ignored it when the issue came up in competition.

Following an on-track incident at the Busch Series race in Montreal last week, NASCAR placed Robby Gordon on probation. In itself, the action was both warranted and consistent with past incidents. However, what followed was not. In their press release, NASCAR noted that should Gordon partake in any other rules infraction “that is deemed by NASCAR officials as detrimental to stock car racing or to NASCAR, or is disruptive to the orderly conduct of an event, he will be suspended indefinitely from NASCAR.”

I mistakenly took that to mean that a driver in violation of a NASCAR-imposed probation would receive heavy punishment. Obviously, I was wrong.

Less than a week after NASCAR seemed to finally define what it means to violate probation, they refused to uphold their own policies not once, but twice. When Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya got out of their cars after an incident at Watkins Glen and engaged in a shoving match (and, yes, it was a pretty weak one at that; the phrase “You fight like a girl” comes to mind), NASCAR did not penalize either driver, despite a clear precedent set in 2006 and their statements about drivers on probation.

STAFF: JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, THE BULLY?

Wimpy or not, shoving another driver is in violation of NASCAR’s rules. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who was fined 10 grand and placed on probation for the first time in his 13-year Cup career following a pit-road incident in which he shoved Matt Kenseth. Gordon, for the same infraction that both Harvick and Montoya committed in full view of the television cameras, got off lightly because he wasn’t already on probation at the time. Not so Harvick and Montoya. Both are already on probation for prior incidents this season, Harvick until October, Montoya through December.

NASCAR had the precedent, and the obligation due to that precedent, to penalize both drivers for the incident. Not only that, but due to their statement on probation violations made just six days prior, they also dropped the ball on enforcing the policy by suspending both drivers for at least one race, if not indefinitely.

No matter what John Darby personally thinks of the incident (the Nextel Cup Series Director said on Monday he thought the incident was “darn cool”) he is under obligation to uphold the NASCAR rulebook. Section 12-4-F of said rulebook reads as follows regarding the penalty for physical altercations: “Any Member who participates in fights in the pits, on the track, or on the race premises: a fine, and/or disqualification, and/or loss of championship points, and/or loss of finishing positions in the Event, and/or probation, and/or suspension.”

In English, the rulebook says if you fight, you get in trouble. And according to NASCAR, if you get in trouble when you’re already in trouble, you get suspended. At least if your name is Robby Gordon.

And therein lies the rub. Had Harvick had an impromptu shoving match with another driver, I have to wonder if the consequences would have been the same. The bottom line is, NASCAR blew this one. Big time. By failing to uphold the written rules and also failing to follow their own written statement, the sanctioning body takes a huge hit in credibility with fans, teams and drivers. Unless there is a separate rulebook for each driver (and Robby Gordon apparently has his own edition), the rules need to be upheld in the same manner for everyone. Unfortunately, NASCAR proved this week that they are not willing to do this. Sad, really, because it would have been so simple to do the right thing.

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