Where’s the ‘line’ for outspoken NASCAR drivers?

Crew members change the tires on Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway last week.
Crew members change the tires on Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway last week. Getty Images

Tony Stewart said Friday he’s still not sure what he said that got him fined $35,000 by NASCAR, but that the whole recent lug-nut episode will ultimately be good for the sport.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how many more $35,000 rules changes I want to make,” Stewart joked Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “But I’m glad that something has been done. When it comes to something that is a safety issue – fine or not – I think you’ve got to speak your mind and you’ve got to be honest about it. I hope this doesn’t discourage drivers for standing up for what they believe and what they think is right for everybody, not just their selves.”

Stewart was fined last week after he was critical of a recent rule change that did not require NASCAR to check whether all five lug nuts are on the wheel during pit stops. The change was made for the 2015 season, when new pit-road technology meant there was no longer an official at each pit stall to monitor changes.

Stewart said NASCAR was overlooking driver safety with the new policy. A few days after the fine was announced, NASCAR announced new penalties for teams that didn’t have all five lug nuts secured.

... I hope we’re able to just speak our minds.

Carl Edwards

“Tony’s very aware of how we approach what is said from a criticism standpoint, from the standpoint of the sport, the product and racing itself – and safety is paramount,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said earlier this week on Sirius XM radio. “We’ve got to make judgment calls of how we look at the tone of what someone said.

“There’s a little line – a bright line – out there. Every once in a while a driver will go over that line and we deal with it.”

NASCAR’s drivers council released a statement last week in support of Stewart. Drivers on the nine-member council, of which Stewart is a member, said they would pay the fine for Stewart.

Instead, Stewart said earlier this week that he would pay the fine himself and, in consultation with the driver’s council, donate the money from the group to the Autism Delaware charity.

“That’s something I’m really proud of with this driver council, how the drivers are united about everything that we’re doing,” Stewart said. “This was the first time something had happened where somebody on the council got a penalty for speaking an opinion and for them to show that kind of support and show that we’re all one unit – that’s something that you don’t normally see and we haven’t seen in this sport.

Tony Stewart was fined $35,000 for critical comments about a recent rule regarding lug nuts.

“Guys talk amongst each other, but somebody gets in trouble for something where the rest of the drivers, privately, will support it but can’t publicly support it. So this was the first time that we’ve seen public support like that and I think it went a long way.”

The drivers council met Friday night at Talladega. According to reports, France attended the meeting and also met with Stewart individually.

Saying something critical of NASCAR in public isn’t something that comes easily for many drivers, however.

“It’s definitely a balance and you have to be smart about the way you word things, I guess,” said driver Martin Truex Jr., who is not on the council. “The most important thing is we’re all in this for the same thing and if you have an opinion, the best way obviously and what NASCAR wants from us is to go to them first and express our displeasure with them and try to come up with a solution without bad mouthing them in the media.

“I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think some guys are definitely a little bit unclear on what they can and can’t say, but at the end of the day if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. If you have something bad to say, go to NASCAR and talk to them about it.”

Stewart wasn’t the only driver who was critical of the lug-nut rule. Greg Biffle and Dale Earnardt Jr. also spoke out, but in perhaps gentler ways.

“The way I understand it is that (France) wants us to be outspoken,” said Carl Edwards. “He wants us to share our opinions on things up to the point where it somehow diminishes the sport’s worth as a whole. I guess that’s where we have to be careful. I’m not exactly sure the line, but I’ll tell you this, everybody in the garage whether they’re in a fire suit or a suit and tie or whatever, sponsors, NASCAR, the drivers, all of us want the sport to be the best it can be. I guess we’ll just go do the best we can to promote the sport the best we can.

“But also I hope we’re able to just speak our minds.”