It’s going to be an interesting weekend at Richmond International Raceway.
Wednesday, Tony Stewart did a brief national media tour, including an appearance on FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub, where he told the media there was still no timetable for his return to the cockpit and that he was still rehabbing his broken back.
Thursday morning at 11 a.m. ET, Stewart announced he would be back behind the wheel of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet starting Friday at RIR, news that flew completely in the face of what he told multiple people less than 24 hours earlier.
Late Thursday afternoon, NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 for violating Section 12.1; 12.8.a; 12.8.1.b of the NASCAR rule book. Those sections contain language about making disparaging marks about the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership.
NASCAR did not identify why the penalty was handed out, but it’s nearly certain that the fine was for Stewart lashing out over the lug nut issue — specifically, NASCAR no longer requiring teams to tighten all five lug nuts on each wheel during pit stops.
“I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt,” Stewart told USA Today’s Jeff Gluck. “You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel that hurts one of them.
“With all the crap we’re going through with all the safety stuff, and for them to sit there and sit on their hands on this one … this is not a game you play with safety and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.”
Then, on Thursday night, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin released a statement to Nate Ryan of NBC Sports, saying that the nine-member NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Council will all pitch in equally to pay Stewart’s fine.
“We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner,” Hamlin said in the statement NBC reported. “While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a Council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine.”
In the span of just about 24 hours, things suddenly got very real between NASCAR and its star drivers.
And the back and forth indicates just how much this sport has changed.
For decades, NASCAR operated around a fundamental notion when dealing with drivers, owners and crew members: “You need us, more than we need you.”
From the beginning, NASCAR has been a dictatorship controlled by the France family. And that’s not a negative or a criticism, especially when you look at how badly some racing series have failed when team owners tried to run them.
To his credit, in recent years NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France has tried to be more inclusive and frequently talks about NASCAR’s myriad stakeholders: drivers, teams, sponsors, fans, manufacturers and others.
NASCAR talks to all those stakeholders and more on a regular basis, which is a good thing.
Earlier this year, NASCAR went to the extraordinary step of creating the charter system to give owners some meaningful stake in the game.
But when you give people a voice, sometimes they are going to raise that voice.
Which is what the Drivers Council is doing right now.
How will NASCAR react?
We might know that as soon as today.
But if enough of the sport’s stars are worried about their own safety, maybe it’s time for NASCAR to make teams run five tight lug nuts on all four wheels at every pit stop.
Ever since Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, NASCAR has pioneered major safety advancements. The last thing it needs right now is one of its stars getting hurt because of a policy it can easily correct.