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If Cup drivers cross the line, they're still going to pay the price

2/5/2008 - NASCAR
AP Photo/Ric Feld

NASCAR says it plans to let the boys be boys this season. Get a little crazy. It's OK.

The fans want NASCAR to pull back on the conduct penalties and let the drivers be themselves. NASCAR chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton say they will oblige.

"We're relooking at it and making sure our policies of enforcement don't make it where our drivers can't express themselves," France said last month during the NASCAR media tour in North Carolina. "There are lots of characters in our sport. There's lots of emotion flying fast and heavy at the events. We want to see more of that."

It's part of NASCAR's underlying theme for 2008 of returning to its roots.

The reality is we're the only major sport where you can question the governing body without being penalized. I've never been told, 'Don't say that.' I have been told, 'Don't say that word,' and I'm good with that."

-- Jeff Burton

What does it mean in reality for bad behavior? Nothing. Zilch.

The Wild West, or the Sluggin' South if you prefer, is not returning to NASCAR. You won't see drivers slinging helmets at each other on the Daytona infield, a la the 1979 Daytona 500 brawling trio of the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough.

If that's your hope in this stated return to the good old days, you're in for a disappointment. Of course, that could happen, but not without major consequences to the participants.

NASCAR officials are playing to the masses here. And the masses are under the illusion that drivers can't be themselves. It isn't true, and it never was true.

"There's a perception that drivers are being harnessed in what they can say," said Jeff Burton. "I don't think the fans like that because I hear that a lot."

But Burton doesn't believe it.

"The reality is we're the only major sport where you can question the governing body without being penalized," Burton said last month at Daytona. "I've never been told, 'Don't say that.' I have been told, 'Don't say that word,' and I'm good with that."

In other words, you can say what you want, but you can't use four-letter words when you say it. That isn't changing. If you use certain curse words on national TV (and I think we all know what those are), you will be fined and incur a points penalty.

"That's how it should be," Burton said. "If my 7-year-old turns the TV on, I want him to be able to watch this without me worrying about what people are going to say. But I don't think that Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon or anybody else has ever been pulled aside and told, 'Don't talk about this.'"

Gordon has said the same thing many times, and both Burton and Gordon have criticized some NASCAR decisions over the years.

But Stewart sees it differently. He feels he can't be himself without having the wrath of the NASCAR hierarchy rain down on his show.

"I don't think it's worth it, to be honest," Stewart said at Daytona testing. "It's just a lot easier to be kind of plain-Jane and know that when you leave the track Sunday night you don't have to go to work Monday and Tuesday putting out fires."

No one is asking drivers to be boring. All NASCAR is asking drivers is for them to conduct themselves as responsible adults, the same as any other employer would expect.

At times, that's difficult for Stewart and a few others. Stewart accused NASCAR of throwing phantom debris cautions last year after the first Phoenix race.

He was called to the Cup hauler a few days later at Talladega and penalized. NASCAR officials didn't like his insinuation, and they let him know it. But the penalty came for missing a required media interview session after the race.

What France and Helton are hoping to make clear is that a driver can show his emotions and not incur a penalty. They already started down the path to proving it last year.

Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya had a little face-to-face shoving match on the track after wrecking each other at Watkins Glen. No harm, no foul. No one was penalized.

Carl Edwards shocked some fans with his infamous fake punch at teammate Matt Kenseth. Not exactly sterling behavior, but not something that warranted a reaction from NASCAR.

And even Stewart got a free pass when he uttered the worst of all four-letters words on live TV -- at least once NASCAR officials said Stewart didn't know the camera was miked.

NASCAR wants to let a few things go, but not everything. In the end, drivers answer not only to NASCAR but to sponsors paying millions of dollars for a driver to represent them in a proper manner.

If you cuss on a broadcast, if you punch someone or if you deliberately wreck another driver, you will pay a price.

"Some of it is just our sport has grown and some people don't like the way it's grown," Burton said. "What are we to do? Our sport has to have a sense of responsibility, not censorship. But I don't think using profanity on TV or radio is acceptable."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.