Double standard exists, some drivers say

Updated: July 1, 2004, 11:19 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmy Spencer punched someone and was suspended. Tony Stewart had a similar confrontation and is allowed to race.

Different rules for different drivers?

That was the debate Thursday in the garage at Daytona International Speedway. There, NASCAR was being scrutinized for its punishment of Stewart for his postrace altercation with Brian Vickers.

Stewart was fined $50,000, docked 25 championship points and placed on probation until Aug. 18 for allegedly striking Vickers after the race Sunday in Sonoma, Calif.

"I think Tony should feel fortunate that the penalty wasn't more severe,'' driver Jeff Burton said Thursday. "I think Tony has some issues that he needs to figure out and the people around him need to find a way to help him do that.

"The talk in the garage is he got off easily.''

A year ago, Spencer was suspended for one race for punching Kurt Busch following a race in Michigan.

That precedent -- plus the "parking'' of Kevin Harvick for one race in 2002 for bad behavior -- led most to believe that NASCAR would take away Stewart's car keys for the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night.

Instead, NASCAR decided not suspend the 2002 series champion. Although many competitors wondered why, Stewart said his actions didn't warrant being parked.

"I'm not sure I totally agree with the punishment,'' he said. "I know other people have disagreed and said I probably should have been parked this week.''

Stewart has a laundry list of offenses in his first five seasons in NASCAR's top series.

From throwing his heat shields at Kenny Irwin as he passed by him on the track his rookie year to punching a photographer in 2002, Stewart has racked up over $100,000 in fines and has had four stints on probation.

It's been almost two years since I did something really stupid, so I guess I was kind of due to a certain degree.
Tony Stewart on his incident with Brian Vickers

Although he's been openly criticized this season for aggressive driving, hitting Vickers during a confrontation over an on-track accident last week was his first major infraction in some time.

"It's been almost two years since I did something really stupid, so I guess I was kind of due to a certain degree,'' Stewart said. "I knew not to hit him, and I wasn't even mad enough to hit him. It just shows that you've got to control that kind of frustration.''

But if hitting another driver doesn't get him suspended, just what does Stewart have to do to get NASCAR to crack down on him? Conspiracy theorists spent the day asking that and opinions being floated ranged from Stewart driving for popular car owner Joe Gibbs, his sponsor being Home Depot -- also an official NASCAR sponsor -- and Stewart being too big of a star to be forced to sit out.

"If I was Spencer, I'd be hot,'' Sterling Marlin said. "But I kind of figured he wouldn't be suspended. He's too big of a name, he's got Joe Gibbs and Home Depot.

"I mean, I've got nothing against him, but there's got to be black and white somewhere.''

That has always been a problem in NASCAR, where a rule book is hard to come by. The sanctioning body frequently implements new rules, often changes long-standing practices and sometimes makes exceptions in how things are interpreted.

But NASCAR officials vehemently denied going easy on Stewart because of pressure from Home Depot, or Coca-Cola, one of Stewart's associate sponsors.

"We consider every incident on its own merits and we didn't feel like this one warranted a suspension,'' spokesman Jim Hunter said. "People are going to believe whatever they want to believe in that respect, but as far as we're concerned, we don't even know who the sponsor is when we're levying a penalty.''

Nextel Cup series director John Darby said Spencer asked him why Stewart received a lighter penalty than he.

Darby said in Spencer's case, the cameras and audio in Busch's car picked up the entire confrontation and the punch to Busch's face. In Stewart's situation, all NASCAR had were comments from Vickers, Stewart and other witnesses.

And although Vickers said on Sunday that Stewart hit him with an open palm that knocked his breath away, Darby said the driver's account to NASCAR officials differed.

"He told us there was no punch,'' Darby said.

Vickers, a 20-year-old rookie, stood by his original version Thursday and said he had no problem with NASCAR's decision.

"That was the story and it's still the story,'' he said. "As far as what NASCAR has done, like I said last week, it's their series to police. I respect their decisions.''

Still, NASCAR officials spent the day defending their decision under a wave of criticism from its competitors.

"We need NASCAR to make a rule, and that's the rule. If it's 15 yards for clipping, then it's 15 yards for clipping,'' car owner Ray Evernham said. "I know that at some point, we're either going to say `Nobody is going to fight or everybody is going to fight. Or it's $50,000 to throw a punch.'

"Let's say that up front, then we just have to write the check and then go whack them.''

Special treatment or not, Rusty Wallace hoped Stewart has learned a lesson.

"I've met a lot of drivers in my life, but I don't know if I've met anybody quite as wild and who gets quite as upset as Tony does,'' Wallace said. "I don't know if this is enough to wake Tony up.

"Tony is a good driver, he's just got to settle down. He's a great guy, I don't know why he has to get that upset. He obviously spun out on this one.''


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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