Hammer Time

Leave it to NASCAR to create its own controversy after a rare weekend of no scoring issues, caution flag problems or suspect officiating. The wrist-slapping of Tony Stewart was a major slap in the face to every driver in the garage area and, after listening to some of the comments made Thursday night at Daytona, the drivers are slapping back.

Stewart ran over everything but the "Hollywood Hotel" (just our luck) last Sunday at Sonoma, including Brian Vickers, who in his first career road course start was putting together a solid Top 15 finish. After punting Vickers out of the way, Stewart himself went on to finish 15th while the rookie Hendrick Motorsports driver was forced to battle back for a 22nd place run.

Stewart then approached Vickers in the garage as the cars came off the track and, according to witnesses and reports, verbally abused the young driver before reaching inside the car to finish things off with a slap or punch to the chest.

Flash forward to Tuesday's weekly media teleconference which featured NASCAR CEO Brian France's comments that the sanctioning body would not take this latest Stewart outburst lightly.

"Just how severe the punishment needs to be to make a point that we are not going to accept that, and punish somebody for what they did, that's something we are going to have to work through," he said.

The very next day, the "punishment" was handed out, which wound up to be a $50,000 fine and 25 points docked. Oh and another one of those scary "probationary" periods, which will last until the middle of August.

"This action we've taken speaks for itself," NASCAR President Mike Helton said.

Boy does it ever.

Forget about the fact that Stewart's behavior the last three years is more on par with a grade school bully than a professional race car driver. The list of incidents with fans, reporters, photographers and other drivers goes on and on.

Let's instead concentrate on the inequity of the NASCAR penalty system. Jimmy Spencer punched Kurt Busch last year at Michigan. His punishment? Parked for a race. Kevin Harvick ran over the field in a Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville. The punishment? Yep, parked.

The only way NASCAR is going to get Stewart's attention once and for all is to sit him out for a race. When he loses a chance at 190 points as well as event prize money, he'll sit up and take notice. A paltry 25 points and $50k means nothing.

The inconsistency of the way NASCAR handles what are clearly similar situations was not lost on several drivers.

"I think Tony should feel fortunate that the penalty wasn't more severe," 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."

"The consistency of NASCAR, it's never the same and that's something that I think needs to be worked on," Robby Gordon said. "Are there different rules for different people? It's starting to look that way."

Some theorize that because Stewart's sponsor is also a NASCAR corporate partner, the penalties were reduced. I'd hate to think that NASCAR would let money get in the way of its credibility.

If NASCAR won't take care of Stewart when he lashes out, the drivers may now take matters into their own hands, which is a dangerous turn of events.

The obvious and right answer would have been to let Stewart go play in a midget or sprint car this holiday weekend rather than compete in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

But all eyes will no doubt be on the No. 20 Saturday night and if anything remotely close to being controversial happens, we will definitely see some 4th of July fireworks.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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