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Unequal justice

7/1/2004

Yup, this time we can say with certainty that Tony Stewart, either the official bad boy of NASCAR or at least solidly somewhere in the Top 10, has learned his lesson.

The lesson: Stewart's a pretty good driver.

That is the deal, isn't it? The deal is that it's a good thing Tony Stewart can drive. If he were just another middle-of-the-pack NASCAR stiff, neither covering the tour in glory nor drawing fans by the hundreds of thousands on the off-chance that he might do something completely idiotic or (better still) do something idiotic while winning a race -- if he were just another guy, then Stewart would be sitting down for a while to contemplate the nature of his temper.

Instead, that'll be Tony the Tiger lining up with all the other non-assaulters at Daytona on Saturday night, fined but not suspended for taking a poke at fellow driver Brian Vickers, docked points but not denied a continuing shot at the Nextel Cup driver championship.

Why no suspension? Why no Nextel nullification? Well, because Tony Stewart is good for business, of course. And around the NASCAR espresso press, just as around every major professional competitive sport you'd care to bleat out, what they talk about, mostly, is what's good for business.

I could call it the Randy Moss rule, if I weren't so certain someone would be e-mailing me later today to claim a race-based conspiracy. I could call it the John McEnroe rule, except nobody 18 to 34 years old can actually remember that McEnroe once played competitive tennis.

So maybe we'll just go with the Tony Stewart rule, and leave it at that. At the least, it keeps the confusion to a minimum.

Stewart's altercation with Vickers, which NASCAR's top dogs clearly understood to be Stewart's fault, is barely registering on the outrage-o-meter, which only proves people have gotten used to watching sports' top stars walk. Stewart was fined $50,000, which for all I know his sponsor, Home Depot, already had stashed away in a Rainy Day/Tony Temper fund for just such an occasion. I don't see Stewart writing the check himself, put it that way.

Suspended? Golly, nope. But NASCAR did lay claim to not letting the man off scot-free by deducting 25 points from Stewart's Nextel standings, leaving him 332 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

Again, though, the devil is in the details of this staggering sellout. By not suspending Stewart for Saturday's Daytona race, which would have fallen well within their purview considering the details of the Vickers deal, the NASCAR folks kept Stewart alive in that championship points hunt. A suspension would have left him well behind the 400-point range that, if not ranked in the top 10, a challenger must maintain to the leader (Johnson) in order to be eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events of the season.

Instead, Stewart most certainly will race.

And the corollary: People most certainly will watch.

Tony Stewart can drive, and for that the man should thank his lucky stars. Otherwise, he's out on his keister after years spent compiling a resume of behavioral immodesties that would wholly embarrass a pro wrestler.

This is a man, after all, who once threw his heat shields at Kenny Irwin after a wreck during his rookie season, then took a swing at Irwin as Irwin's car rolled past him during a caution flag. This is a man who got in a shoving match with Robby Gordon. Got in a shouting match with Jeff Gordon (stop smiling, half of NASCAR nation). Slapped the tape recorder away from a reporter. Charged a NASCAR official. Punched a photographer.

And, shoot, from the look of things Stewart's just getting warmed up. He went after the rookie Vickers in Sonoma last weekend after Vickers -- not Stewart, but Vickers -- was knocked out of the race following contact between the cars.

If you follow racing at all, you've heard the rest of the story by now -- and, to be fair, the principals' observations are mostly what anyone has to go on, since no videotape is available. Vickers says Stewart approached him while Vickers was still in his car, evidently didn't appreciate Vickers laughing about the road-course incident involving the two autos, reached for Vickers inside the car and "knocked the breath out of me."

Stewart, so says Vickers, then hit the arm-rest with his arm before "he grabbed me in the chest, and when he did hit me, it was kind of open palm." Nothin' to call the parmedics over, in other words -- but well beyond the bounds of professional conduct.

Stewart is hardly the first NASCAR racer to lose it in the heat of competition, merely the most repetitive. It's gotten to the point that if anyone says "race" and "controversy" in the same sentence, you find yourself waiting in anticipation of hearing what dunderheaded thing Stewart has done now.

That's not a great place to be, image-wise -- or so you'd think. In point of fact, NASCAR's every move seems to indicate that Stewart's image isn't suffering a bit, that the whole wayward-child routine probably fascinates more people than it repels. Moss, McEnroe, Dennis Rodman: To varying degrees and in ways that don't always compare quite exactly, most top sports in America have had their share of elite talents who needed -- no, demanded -- to be abided.

On top of all that, the racing association doesn't really feel like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. And so Tony Stewart goes on racing -- lousy temper, slap-your-face tendencies and all.

Or, as NASCAR president Mike Helton said in handing down Stewart's "punishment," "Tony Stewart is well aware of what is expected of him going forward."

Frankly, I'm afraid Helton is right.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com