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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Probation? No Problem! Do What You Want & Don’t Pay Later!

It all started with Tony Stewart.

No, it wasn’t a post-race war of words or an on-track shoving match (at least, not this time). When he failed to show his face in the media center following the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix this spring, Stewart was placed on probation for failing to follow one of NASCAR’s many rules; in this case, the one that says the top-three finishers go to the media center and answer lots of reporters’ questions. For whatever reason, Stewart was pissed off and didn’t go.

Obviously, that didn’t sit well with the powers that be, and it wasn’t helping Stewart’s cause that he’d said some not-so-stellar things about the sanctioning body on the radio earlier in the week. So, NASCAR put him on probation.

Translation: Play nice or we might take away your toys.

Next up were Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray; they became the newest “probies” following a shoving match at Talladega. They were soon joined in the penalty box by Juan Pablo Montoya, who flipped off a TV camera. Montoya claimed that he didn’t know the footage was being broadcast live, but it didn’t matter; at least probation was not a lonely place to be. Kurt Busch and Robby Gordon jumped on the boat by July; of those, only Gordon has been stung, receiving a one-race suspension for his Montreal transgressions in August.

Back then, NASCAR was so angry at Gordon, they made the ultimate threat: screw up on probation and we’ll suspend you again, pal.

With that statement, NASCAR painted themselves into a corner. They had thrown down a gauntlet, so to speak. But other than Gordon, who has not raised any official eyebrows of late, they didn’t really want to face the backlash of fans and sponsors if they suspended a driver. So, what has NASCAR done? Nothing.

That’s right, nothing. Nada. As in, they have let anything and everything slide for these guys since then.

Stewart got a slap on the wrist for a naughty word at Indy, but NASCAR has let several much larger incidents slide without so much as the hairy eyeball. First, it was Harvick and Montoya nearly coming to blows at Watkins Glen. When Martin Truex Jr. admittedly sent Montoya spinning into Harvick, Harvick responded by climbing out of his wrecked racecar and advancing toward Montoya’s. Montoya also got out, despite the fact that his car was at least drivable, and the two preened and postured for a few moments before entering into what may be the wimpiest on-track shoving match ever.

But a shoving match it was, and Montoya grabbed Harvick’s helmet – a previous no-no that Stewart had been penalized for a couple of seasons back when he gave Brian Vickers a small helmet-shove at Sonoma. Clearly, had NASCAR followed their own directive, fired just days before, both drivers should have sat down a race; NASCAR expressly forbids fighting, and – even if this fight was girly at best – they would probably have deemed it an Action Detrimental to Stock Car Racing had it been anyone else. Instead, they looked pointedly the other way… probation had earned these men a free pass.

McMurray and Busch have been fine since their transgressions; however, Stewart has behaved badly. The BS slip aside, Stewart got ticked at Paul Menard at Dover and popped him from behind… not once, but twice. In the past, NASCAR has called such behavior “rough driving” and penalized in accordance to the rules. In fact, they have done just that several times over the past few seasons to all sorts of competitors – including Stewart himself in 2006. But this time, NASCAR looked pointedly the other way and whistled.

The following week, Stewart dropped an f-bomb on live TV while telling off an ESPN cameraman. Like Montoya in the spring, Stewart claimed he didn’t know he was being filmed. Unlike Montoya, they pretended to believe him, and then claimed that the transmission wasn’t clear enough to tell if that was really what Stewart said. Even though several fans’ eight-year-olds heard what he meant – not difficult to comprehend, unless Stewart has a no-hockey clause in his contract and was saying “Get that puck away from me!” – NASCAR developed a mysterious case of selective hearing, looked pointedly the other way and whistled Dixie. Unless, that is, they later put all three on double-secret triple probation without parole and no ice cream for a month. Which could have happened, I suppose… nothing would surprise me.

Actually, with the inconsistent manner in which NASCAR treats everything else, I don’t know if this is a surprise or not. On the one hand, if NASCAR suspended these guys, they’d have had to be consistent with their words… and we all know that’s not their forte. On the other hand, why be “double inconsistent?” Penalize them for their actions, but don’t suspend them like they would have Gordon if they had half a chance to do so. Either way, the fans – and the drivers who uphold a higher standard of professional behavior – have to wonder what it’s going to take for NASCAR to take the next step with drivers on probation.

At this rate, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

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