Helton Staying Put

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BRISTOL, TENN. - NASCAR president Mike Helton vehemently denied rumors Friday that he is leaving his post to take over Dale Earnhardt Inc.

The rumor had been circulating for several weeks, with Helton simply ignoring it. But when an Internet site devoted to NASCAR reported this week that a deal was done and Helton would go to DEI as president and part owner, he chose to address it.

"I am not leaving NASCAR and I have not been offered a job by DEI," Helton told the Associated Press. "I am flattered that my name comes up like this, but I have no desire to leave NASCAR."

DEI was founded by the late Dale Earnhardt and is run by his widow, Teresa.

Helton has always had a close relationship with the family -- son Kerry Earnhardt stopped into the NASCAR hauler to tell Helton about the recent birth of his daughter -- which might have fueled the speculation.

Helton took over for Bill France Jr. as NASCAR president in 2000 when France was in poor health. He became the first person outside of the France family to run NASCAR and has continued in that role even as France has returned to a day-to-day leadership role.

"I am very thankful to the France family and as long as Bill France and Jim France and the family will keep me there, I hope to stay there," he said.

GORDON'S PLAYMATE

The breakup of four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon's marriage is the subject of the October issue of Playboy magazine, in which a model claims she caused the breakup.

Deanna Merryman said in the article she met Gordon in 2000 while working at a Neiman Marcus store in Florida and the two started an 11-month affair that led to the breakup from his wife, Brooke.

Jeff and Brooke Gordon, a former Miss Winston model, were officially divorced in June.

"It's not even worth commenting on," Gordon said. "All I want to talk about is being fast here at Bristol. I would rather just stay away from that."

Asked if there were anything in the article he thought was untrue, Gordon replied: "I have a lot of opinions on it but I don't think there is any reason to share that with anybody."

INCIDENT LEFT NO CHOICE

NASCAR had no choice but to suspend Jimmy Spencer for punching Kurt Busch because of repeated warnings to both drivers over their ongoing feud, Helton said.

Spencer and Busch have had at least three previous on-track episodes, and it escalated Sunday at Michigan International Speedway when they made contact late in the race. Afterward, as Busch sat in his car in the garage, Spencer reached in and punched him.

NASCAR suspended Spencer from Saturday night's race at Bristol, fined him $25,000 and placed him on probation through the end of the year.

Some think the penalty was a little stiff, especially since Tony Stewart was not suspended last year for punching a photographer, and Ricky Rudd and an engine builder were only fined for their altercation in the garage.

"The difference between the others is this one was an ongoing incident between Jimmy and Kurt Busch which did not originate last week in Michigan," Helton said. "It had been going on for some time and there had been several conversations about this relationship and warnings that future incidents would be meant with a severe reaction."

Busch was placed on probation until Dec. 31, but Helton would not say what role, if any, audio tapes of Busch admitting he intentionally tried to wreck Spencer played in punishing him.

"Kurt was put on probation because he's the other half of the equation in this issue," Helton said. "His involvement in this over time has continued to it reaching the point that it did."

BUSY FITTIPALDI

It's been a busy week for Christian Fittipaldi, who tested for two days at Darlington Raceway before coming to Bristol for Saturday night's race.

Both tracks are physically demanding and completely different. Darlington is a rough 1.33-mile egg-shaped track and Bristol is a high-banked .533-mile bullring.

Fittipaldi, a rookie, had never been on either track.

"We are ready to take what we've learned and apply it, starting here at Bristol," said Fittipaldi. "This is not mission impossible. It was important for me to get to these tracks and test before I had to race them."

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