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Double standard exists, some drivers say

7/1/2004

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.

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.''