Commentary

Surprise! NASCAR's drug policy working

Updated: May 13, 2009, 2:45 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

No one would have suspected Jeremy Mayfield's substance-abuse violation, a clear example of why NASCAR's current drug-testing system works and the previous one did not.

Mayfield was suspended indefinitely after failing a random drug test last week. Random is the key word here.

Before this season, drivers were tested on the grounds of what NASCAR termed "reasonable suspicion." Mayfield is a good old boy from Kentucky, as American as apple pie and as clean as they come -- or so it seemed.

That's the point. You just don't know. You can't tell by looking, not in today's society when substance abuse is a problem in every community and every sport.

Under NASCAR's former system, Mayfield still could be in the car for the next event. And the other competitors could be at risk.

No one knows how many times that has happened in the past, but thinking it hasn't happened is ludicrously naive.

McGee: A Bold Statement

Zero tolerance. That's the message NASCAR boldly delivered Saturday at Darlington with the announcement that Jeremy Mayfield had been suspended indefinitely for failing a drug test, writes Ryan McGee. Story

We know it happened with Aaron Fike, who admitted last year he was using heroin while racing in the Truck series.

Mayfield is the first Sprint Cup driver to test positive under the new system. He won't be the last.

This is not to say that NASCAR has a substance-abuse problem. In fact, I would say with confidence that NASCAR has far fewer problems in this area than other major sports.

Drivers risk their lives maneuvering vehicles at 200 mph. Trying to control a 3,400-pound race car is hard enough with a clear head. Drivers take that responsibility seriously.

But drug abuse is an unfortunate reality today at every level. And no one can know for sure whether someone is clean, including the highest government officials and the most respected clergymen.

You can't tell by looking. Suspicion is not enough. Regular testing is the only way to know whether a driver is endangering his life and others'.

Fike's admission led NASCAR to change its drug policy, a decision that deserves praise.

If one flaw remains, it's that NASCAR officials do not specify the substance an individual used. Mayfield claimed he was a victim of using a prescribed drug with another over-the-counter medication.

How many times have we heard athletes make similar claims in recent years? Whatever the substance was, doctors believe it was impairing Mayfield's ability to drive.

Even if Mayfield is telling the truth, he should have checked with NASCAR officials about the legality of taking the medications.

But NASCAR leaves itself open to questions by not revealing the substance of the positive test. Maybe that policy will change eventually.

The Mayfield situation is tragic on many levels. A highly respected and popular driver is tarnished, and an entire organization is in jeopardy.

Mayfield started his own team this year, hoping to beat the odds and make it work as a single-car, independent operation.

The good news is that every competitor knows this is a new era of accountability in NASCAR. Elliott Sadler said he hopes it's "a wake-up call for everyone."

Jeff Gordon knew a failed test was inevitable at some point under the new system.

"You know somebody is going to make a mistake somewhere along the way," he said after Saturday's race at Darlington. "It's unfortunate for the sport, but we'll take the blows and move on."

***

Clint Bowyer's modern-day record of 83 consecutive races without a DNF (did not finish) officially ended Saturday night at Darlington because of a midrace accident.

[+] EnlargeClint Bowyer
AP Photo/Richard ShiroA wreck at Darlington finally put a stop to Clint Bowyer's day -- and record.

For me, the streak unofficially ended two weeks ago at Talladega when Bowyer crashed on Lap 7 but came back and completed the final lap of the race.

Bowyer's team was upset with me for insinuating that he returned to the racetrack simply to keep the streak alive.

The record streak wasn't the reason the No. 33 Chevy went back on the track at the end. The team did it for points.

Returning to the track meant Bowyer finished 39th, ahead of four cars that didn't return from the early accident. He earned 46 points, three more than 40th-place David Gilliland and 12 more than 43rd-place Mark Martin.

Bowyer, who ranks 13th in the Sprint Cup standings, is a contender for the Chase, so those points could determine whether he makes the playoff when the 12-man field is set after 26 races.

It was the right thing to do, but this brings up another problem.

NASCAR officials wouldn't allow Bowyer's mangled Chevy back on the track until the leaders took the white flag, because officials knew the car would have trouble making the minimum speed requirement.

This situation shows why NASCAR shouldn't award points to drivers who finish worse than 30th.

Teams wouldn't feel the need to return to the race (sometimes 50 or more laps down) with a car that would have no chance of racing competitively, compromising safety by getting in the way.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

ALSO SEE