What a time to be alive for Tony Stewart. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver and co-owner was welcomed back with open arms by fans and nearly everyone around the sport when he announced his return from a back injury at Richmond International Raceway this weekend.
Emphasis on “nearly.” Why? Because NASCAR didn’t like Smoke’s opinion of the sport’s rule on lug nuts and promptly fined him $35,000 on the day of his big announcement. You can’t make this stuff up, people.
Stewart offered his thoughts on the fine prior to his 2016 debut at Richmond on Fox Sports.
I understand what NASCAR is trying to do, but I’m always going to speak my mind. I don’t know what the key word or key phrase was that got me fined. when it comes to safety, I’m not going to hold back. that’s $35,000 well invested if it makes it safer for these guys. I think they’re doing something different today with rules on trying to keep everybody making sure we get enough lug nuts on the cars. …
I wasn’t saying they’re not doing their job. I felt like they dropped the ball. they’re doing a good job. They’re looking at it and address it and make it right. Down the road, we won’t have to worry about this again.
“I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt,” Stewart said on Wednesday. “You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel that hurts one of them.
“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 … 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.”
According to Section 12.8.1, actions that could result in a $10,000-$50,000 fine include disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership, or verbal abuse of a NASCAR Official, media members, fans, etc.
The Sprint Cup Driver’s Council isn’t sitting on their hands on this issue, though. Denny Hamlin, a member of the Driver’s Council, released a statement to NBC Sports on the issue.
“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,” Hamlin said. “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.”
So apparently voicing concern over fellow drivers is worth the median level of a fine for disparaging the sport? Sure. But let’s first talk about how far the sport would be set back by an injury being suffered over a loose wheel because only three lug nuts were placed on a car in the pits.
Stewart wasn’t the only driver to lash out at NASCAR, but he was the only one fined. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke on the issue last weekend at Bristol.
“It freaks me out,” Earnhardt said Friday. “I was blown away that NASCAR quit officiating that aspect (of pit stops). I could not believe that was the choice that they made. But that is the world we live in. There are not enough officials today to revert, so it’s a knot that can’t be retied. We will just have to try to do the best we can as drivers not to end up in the fence.”
Fellow SHR driver Kurt Busch also shared his thoughts on the lug nuts.
“I think it’s a safety issue that we need to address before a negative outcome occurs,” Busch said. “If you went to your Goodyear store and they tightened 3 lug nuts, you wouldn’t feel good about it.”
It’s an upsetting reality when drivers asked to speak to the media and voice their opinions are later fined lump sums of money for doing so. Especially on a topic that concerns every driver with their health at risk. But hey, you do you, NASCAR.