Commentary

Argue a speeding penalty? No more

Updated: April 13, 2011, 3:40 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Friends and neighbors, we have gathered here today to say a final word for the passing of an old -- albeit sometimes maddening -- companion. So let's hold our stopwatches high, burn a black flag, and say farewell.

At approximately 11 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. local time, on Saturday night, a great NASCAR tradition was likely laid to rest on the grounds of Texas Motor Speedway.

More accurately, pit stall No. 8. That's where Tony Stewart came over the radio and instead of dropping curse bombs and questioning NASCAR's ability to operate a radar gun, he instead quietly uttered these words:

"Sorry. I knew I did it."

And with that, dearly beloved, the practice of running into the big yellow truck to fight with NASCAR over pit road speeding penalties may have finally shaken off the mortal coil.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesTony Stewart said he knew he was speeding on pit road at Texas. And even if he hadn't admitted it, it wouldn't have mattered.

As we mourn, the racers of NASCAR might likely mourn with us. They are thinking back on Dale Earnhardt's declaration that "speeding is for the interstate, not racing" or Juan Pablo Montoya crying out, "Thank you, NASCAR, for screwing my day … I was not speeding. I swear it on my children and my wife."

But as those colorful tales were perhaps choked away in the windy heat of the Texas plains, those who appear to have lost their ability to take a speeding-penalty stand are also likely hearing a familiar warning echoing off the walls of their helmets.

Be careful what you wish for.

"Honestly, I don't think there's a whole lot more you can do or say about it," said Carl Edwards, who finished third on Saturday night. "I'm not saying guys won't still complain over the radio when they get busted. But as far as taking the fight into the NASCAR hauler and pleading your case, there's honestly not much of a fight to be had anymore."

The week certainly began with one. After a pit road speeding penalty at Martinsville on April 3, the normally sanguine Jimmie Johnson was downright irate about a penalty that essentially cost him a shot at the victory, declaring "There's just no way" on national television, questioning the sanctioning body's mathematical abilities, and then tweeting that NASCAR should post pit road times during the race "for all the world to see."

But by midweek the champ admitted he was wrong. He said he and his team were mistaken about where on pit road the 48 car had been caught over the limit. However, he did still say that NASCAR should be more transparent about how it polices pit road and about the numbers that policing produces.

Be careful what you wish for.

NASCAR president Mike Helton reminded Johnson that teams can receive a printout of their pit road speeds simply by stopping by the NASCAR truck after the race. Then he invited Johnson up to Race Control to see the monitoring system for himself. He also welcomed in ESPN's cameras during Friday night's Nationwide Series event at Texas and did the same with Fox during Saturday night's Sprint Cup race. Meanwhile, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O'Donnell spent a portion of the Cup event tweeting live from Race Control.

What Johnson, and the rest of us, saw was a first peek at a digital system that records times at different points up and down the pit lane, from the entrance line across multiple lines -- or timing boxes -- and ultimately to the exit line at the far end.

"We are in the business of pushing those limits," Jeff Gordon said roughly 24 hours before joining Stewart as one of the three drivers penalized for pit road speeding at Texas (Ken Schrader was the third). Gordon's Cup career began in 1992, the year after NASCAR first implemented pit road speed limits in the name of safety. "I've been up into [NASCAR's] tower to watch and it's just a screen that that has red or green. There's not much gray area there. Just red or green."

It wasn't so long ago -- 2004 -- that NASCAR was still timing cars with stopwatches, recording how long it took to get from one line to the next and then translating that into miles per hour. But that approach led to claims of selective policing, giving the sanctioning body the chance to play favorites if it wanted to.

"The most we could really track at once was a dozen cars or so," admits Sprint Cup Series director John Darby. "But the drivers demanded something more indisputable. Something that treated everyone equally and not let the human element of a guy with a stopwatch in the press box determining the outcome of the race. So we designed that system."

Jeff Gordon I've been up into [NASCAR's] tower to watch and it's just a screen that that has red or green. There's not much gray area there. Just red or green.

-- Jeff Gordon

The new system, created by NASCAR's competition department in conjunction with NASCAR Media Group, uses the same timing and scoring transponders that gather loop data around the track. It also employs the same digital acquisition management video system that Race Control uses to make better on-track determinations, from cautions to adjusting lineups for restarts. It is like the NFL's instant-replay system, only with triple the number of available camera angles.

In other words, it's a mountain of evidence if they need it to be. And this evidence holds up a little better in the court of NASCAR's office trailer than the "but our guy with the stopwatch clocked you too fast" argument.

"There was certainly more of a judgment call to it before," Gordon added. "I guess it was like balls and strikes in baseball. I'm sure there's a way to let a computer do that, too."

So, would he recommend that to any of his friends in Major League Baseball?

"Um," he said with a laugh. "I don't know. They might miss being able to plead their case to the umpire."

Perhaps one day NASCAR drivers will miss pleading their case, too. But for now, if Stewart's Saturday night shut-up-and-take-it admission is any indication, they seem like a group resigned to their fate.

"It was what it was," said crew chief Darian Grubb after the team's 12th-place finish. "Tony took responsibility. And even if he thought he hadn't been speeding, I think he knew that arguing certainly wasn't going to do us any good at that point."

Be careful what you wish for.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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