Pandoras Box

NASCAR's decision Tuesday to dock Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25 points in addition to imposing a $10,000 fine has set off a firestorm on our message board where race fans interact. While the majority of posters feel that the punishment was unfair there are other posters who feel passionately that the fine was proper and more importantly was essential to preserve NASCAR's credibility. After all they had imposed $10,000 fines and taken 25 points from Busch drivers Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday for uttering the same word earlier this season.

I'll give NASCAR officials a hard time occasionally (well perhaps a bit more than occasionally) but this time I almost feel sorry for them. They have themselves painted into a corner because of the previous penalties. But for the record I disagree with docking Earnhardt those 25 points. (The $10,000 fine is completely inconsequential given Earnhardt's income.) But in saying that I have to add that I also disagree with the past decisions to take points from Sauter and Hornaday. There should only be one standard of punishment and it must apply to all drivers from wet behind the ears rookies to the sport's superstars.

Complicating the situation is the oxymoronic fact a point is no longer a point. 25 points earned in March are no longer as valuable as 25 points awarded in the final ten races. For any of the ten drivers who are part of the Chase for the Championship, they could have vented their spleen in the profane and rude terms possible after the Fontana race in September. Because the points were basically reset after the next race at Richmond to make up the Chase field the loss of those 25 points would have been inconsequential. If the old points system was in place after Richmond third place Earnhardt Junior would have been 183 points ahead of Kurt Busch but with the new points system instead he was only 15 points ahead of him. Those two drivers are now at the top of the standings (After the penalty Busch assumes the points lead by twelve markers over Earnhardt.) But, some might point out because he was in third place in the standings Earnhardt also benefited from the new points system. Under the old system Earnhardt would have left Richmond 66 points behind points leader Jeff Gordon. Instead with the points recalculated for the Chase he was put just ten points behind Gordon. But under that old points system while Earnhardt would still be second in points he'd be sixteen points behind Jeff Gordon, but 151 points ahead of third place Jimmie Johnson and 200 points ahead of fourth place Kurt Busch. Yes, he'd trail Gordon but Earnhardt would have a little breathing room ahead of the other drivers challenging for the title mitigating the sting of the penalty somewhat.

We could argue various points scenarios till the cows came home and learned to knit but the basis of my argument is if you are going to implement a new points system that artificially inflates the worth of points scored in the final ten races of the season it can no longer be argued that Earnhardt Jr. is receiving the same penalty as Hornaday and Sauter.

The word in question, a colloquialism for excrement, has lost the shock value it once had. While still frowned upon in polite circles the word appears in popular literature and cinema. Some NASCAR sites and print venues have even included the offending word unedited in their reporting and commenting on this issue. And as of this season that very same word appears quite regularly on NYPD Blue on broadcast TV usually preceded by "bull." During an episode of South Park the same vulgarity was repeated over 100 times in an attempt to parody the prudishness of network television. Like it or not, and I can't say I do, that same word has become so mainstream it has entered polite conversation with dizzying rapidity after once having been a cornerstone of George Carlin's infamous seven words.

What really bothers me about this whole boondoggle is the disparity between actions and words. When Robby Gordon torpedoed the championship hopes of two title contenders in a blatant fit of ill-advised payback at New Hampshire not only was he not docked points he wasn't fined. Earlier this year when Tony Stewart seemed on a determined campaign to wreck as many cars as possible (most notably triggering the wreck that ended up taking out Jeff Gordon at Darlington and wrecking leader Kasey Kahne on a restart at Chicago) he wasn't penalized any points either. It seems to me that if points are awarded for racing they ought to be deducted more readily for racing poorly than for what is said after a race. What sort of message is NASCAR sending here? It's OK to drive like you've got crap for brains but don't say that word after the event.

Finally, the broadcast network, in this instance NBC, has to bare some if not all of the blame for the escaped "S word." Many pundits as well as NASCAR official Mike Helton have cited the fallout from the Super Bowl boob-gate as a reason that NASCAR must eliminate such unpleasantness. But in that instance Ms. Jackson was not fined for her little "wardrobe malfunction" no matter how transparent her claims that it was "accidental" might have been. It was CBS, the station that broadcast the game and the halftime show that got hit upside the head financially for the 1.4 seconds that shocked a nation. This wasn't NBC's first rodeo. It's widely known that certain drivers, Earnhardt Jr. and Rusty Wallace come to mind, are prone to letting profanity fly when excited. (Kudos to Wallace for having made a determined effort to clean up his language at least during TV interviews. Brickbats to NASCAR for once fining Wallace for using the word "sucks" in a non-sexual context.) A three or four second tape delay ought to allow an alert audio editor to bleep out language that might offend more delicate TV viewers. Watch carefully and you'll note that such a delay is already used when the network monitors the team's radio frequencies on line after various networks got burned countless times while eavesdropping at an inopportune moment. Watch and you'll see that when a spotter hollers "clear" during a live broadcast that driver has actually been clear for several seconds. And therein lays the litmus test. Helton had warned the drivers earlier this year they must clean up their language on the radio as well especially if they knew their frequency was being monitored. But no fines have ever been issued for bad language used on a team's radio if it wasn't broadcast on TV. Nor does NASCAR have language cops running around in the garage area on race weekends tallying up the numbers of profanities a driver utters during the weekend. If they did a lot of drivers would currently have less than zero points. So drivers and other team members are free to use whatever profanities they wish just so long as it isn't picked up live on TV or presumably live on broadcast radio. (Though in the past NASCAR has historically been more lenient when a driver messes up during an MRN radio interview than when the slip-up occurs on TV.) Thus the fine isn't for use of language but broadcast use of such language which by definition means it's up to the broadcasters to make sure that curse words don't make it onto live broadcasts.

In a perfect world all drivers, no matter how angry or elated, would avoid using such language in TV interviews. This world ain't perfect and danged few of us lucky enough to live here are either. NASCAR did what they felt they had to but now they face a nightmarish situation I'd guess most of them would candidly admit they hope won't play out. If Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sports most popular driver and arguably the face of stock car racing, were to lose this year's title by less than 25 points, especially to a driver virtually unknown to casual fans and non-fans of the sport, NASCAR will have a PR debacle of epic proportions on their hands. And they'll have no one but themselves to blame for that unholy mess. They opened Pandora's Box when they hit Sauter and Hornaday with those points deductions. About the only more nightmarish scenario I can envision would involve a driver, be it Earnhardt or somebody else, winning this year's championship by less than 25 points. Say he emerges from the car after the race and is asked how it feels to be the new champ and he responds "Ain't that some s—t!" In that case would NASCAR retroactively award the title to the second place driver?

Timing is Everything- I was a little confused last Sunday. NASCAR and NBC have professed to adding the new championship chase in an attempt to battle the all-conquering NFL at least when it comes to TV ratings. Yet while a bunch of football games, many of them in major TV markets, started at one o'clock NASCAR coverage didn't even begin until 1:30 and that was the pre-race show. Several football games got very exciting while NBC continued airing their formulaic pre-race show and various festivities. I thought perhaps they were aiming to start the race during the half-time intermission of the early football games in an attempt to lure channel surfers to watch at least a portion of the race but by the time the green flag dropped many footballs games had already begun the third quarter of play. I'd think in an ideal world the green flag would drop precisely at one o'clock Eastern time in an attempt to capture the interest of viewers before any of the football games got too exciting. Frankly an hour and fifteen minutes of pre-race fluff is a little difficult to endure for even hard core racing fans. Moving the start of the race up would also allow for more post-race coverage. Call me insane but I've always been more interested in hearing how drivers felt about the race after the event than before. Before a race almost every driver will say he feels he has a good shot at the win or at least a top 10 finish. But for three quarters of the field that doesn't actually happen. Let's hear from them why they didn't finish as well as they hoped.

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