Sports Q&A: NASCAR Discipline Soft By Design

After a weekend of confrontations at Darlington, NASCAR handed out punishment on Tuesday, with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick each receiving four weeks probation and a $25,000 fine. Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya were given a "final warning" for their ongoing feud that allegedly led to Newman punching Montoya at Darlington. Did NASCAR wimp out with its disciplinary actions?

What's the greatest thing about NASCAR when it comes to discipline? No one listens to them. That doesn't make them wimps. It makes them brilliant marketing strategists. What's four weeks probation to Busch and Harvick? Four weeks to plot their next moves, four weeks to belittle their rival with vague and veiled insults, and four weeks to closely test the boundaries of NASCAR's "probationary" period. Probation? To fans, that means NASCAR will be watching. Not surprisingly, to NASCAR, that means fans will be watching. And the $25,000? Harvick would say that's "chicken" scratch to Busch, and he'd be right. Busch, for his part, would say that $25,000 is the price Harvick had to pay for "window shopping" at the No. 18 Toyota.

But who's complaining about the lack of severity of NASCAR sanctions? Apparently, only people who want NASCAR's punishment of drivers to actually discourage behavior like Busch's and Harvick's. That would be discouraging, to fans. NASCAR's not stupid. They only look stupid. And they know it. Appearances can be deceiving, and NASCAR wants only to appear to discourage such driver behavior with their brand of punishment. NASCAR puts the "pun" in punishment.

What's the purpose of a minimal fine and simple probation? For NASCAR, it's their version of discipline with maximum effect (in their eyes) and minimal impact. It's the equivalent of asking drivers to wear "promise rings." NASCAR's punishment says to drivers, "Don't let it happen again, but if it does, please make sure you make it look like a 'racing incident.'"

NASCAR knows just as well as everyone else that their rendered judgments are often, if not always, deemed not severe enough. Sure, they are carefully considered, but in most cases, the punishment does not fit the crime. For that, NASCAR should be applauded. The last thing NASCAR wants is to bar a driver bent on retaliation off the track. NASCAR doesn't want to play the bad guy. No, they want the bad guy on the track, plotting his next mildly punishable action. It would take a truly heinous on-the-track act for NASCAR to suspend a driver. In the realm of NASCAR discipline, it's not "my way or the highway." It's "my way and the speedway."

In case you missed it, Busch and Harvick's shenanigans overshadowed Regan Smith's first career Sprint Cup, and then some. And that begs the question, if a winning driver does victory burnouts and no one is watching, does it make any smoke? Let's thank the good lord it wasn't a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win that was overshadowed. Otherwise, there would have been fans trying to punch Busch and Harvick for the very though of stealing some Junior thunder. In any case, the brewing feud was by leaps and bounds more entertaining than the race itself. The Busch/Harvick game of cat and mouse was both controversial and entertaining, a true brouhaha.

You can call Busch a coward for driving off. And, you can say "it" runs in the family. You could even say he "turned tail." Indeed he did. He spun Harvick not once, but twice. Busch is no one-hit wonder, like the band Sniff 'n the Tears, who performed the 1978 hit "Driver's Seat," which Busch was surely humming when he sent the No. 29 Budweiser car astray. After those two dramatic turns, Harvick will now be known as the "King of Veers."

But give Harvick credit for instigating the situation and bumping Busch when it appeared Busch did nothing wrong. Say what you will about Harvick, but the man has guts. And it takes guts to confront a Busch brother with only window netting separating you. Wait. No it doesn't. Anyway, Harvick is known to take no guff from anyone, and once Busch spun him, he was obligated to retaliate. What's worse for Harvick and Busch? A piddly fine and probation from NASCAR, or the ignominy of knowing they let a heated rival get the upper hand. A lenient sanction, wisely administered by NASCAR's marshmallow fist, ensures that Harvick and Busch, as well as other drivers, won't be afraid to seek their own justice.

As for the fates of Montoya and Newman, NASCAR again made the right call, issuing warnings instead of punishment. Montoya wrecked Newman at Richmond, and Newman punched Montoya at Darlington. With warnings, NASCAR is essentially saying, "Your move, Montoya."

Who was most entertained by the Busch/Harvick fiasco? Why, Jimmie Johnson, of course? In his quest for his sixth Sprint Cup championship, Johnson has to be satisfied to see two of the three biggest challengers to his title in a conflict that is sure to spill over to the remainder of the season. And with the volatile Carl Edwards due to blow his top soon, Johnson could very well see all three of his greatest rivals facing NASCAR discipline. What's the biggest difference between Johnson and Harvick, Busch, and Edwards? Besides five Sprint Cup championships. It's Johnson's level-headedness. If he gets angry, it's often at his crew chief, Chad Knaus. When he's wronged, Johnson doesn't get even. He gets even better.

In short, NASCAR needs the excitement and controversy that comes with feuding drivers. If there's a knock against NASCAR, it's the boredom of races that lack action or controversy. NASCAR has a monopoly on monotony. If NASCAR's discipline exacerbates this problem, then they have gone too far. Wisely, NASCAR only loosely practices what it preaches.

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