Photo credit: Getty Images

Good news, Smoke fans! Tony Stewart will return to racing this weekend, and is even eligible for NASCAR’s playoff-style championship, the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Bad news, everyone: he was also just fined $35,000 for calling out NASCAR on something he should be able to voice concerns on: safety.

NASCAR cleared Stewart’s return and eligibility for the Chase after his ATV injury earlier this year. Given that NASCAR allowed Kyle Busch to participate in the Chase after missing an early chunk of the season due to an injury, that part comes as little surprise.

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Like Busch, NASCAR says that Stewart will need to win at least one regular season race and climb into the top 30 in the points standings to make it in.

But Stewart was critical of NASCAR’s decision made last fall to stop requiring teams to affix all five lug nuts to a wheel, reports USA Today. The decision came after new pit road officiating technologies were implemented, and fewer officials became required on pit road. Without someone standing over and watching each pit box, NASCAR opted to leave it up to the teams to decide how many lug nuts to affix to each car.

Photo credit: Getty Images

An Obvious Safety Problem

We’ve seen a ton of loose wheels this season accordingly, as additional lug nuts cost teams more time in the pits. If teams can get away with three or four to save time and get the car back on track faster, they will. Stewart told guests at a Mobil 1 promotional event that he’s certain that this race to affix as few lug nuts as possible will only end poorly. As quoted by USA Today:

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I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt. You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel that hurts one of them.

With all the crap we’re going through with all the safety stuff, and for them to sit there and sit on their hands on this one ... this is not a game you play with safety and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.

Stewart continued:

We shouldn’t be playing games with safety to win races. It should be out-performing the other teams, not jeopardizing drivers’ lives by teams putting two lug nuts on to try to get two more spots off pit road.

That’s exactly what we’re seeing during races: teams will only affix the bare minimum number of lug nuts that they can get away with. The incentive is there to get out of the pits faster, not to play it safe by fastening every lug nut.

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Stewart is right to call this out. Loose wheels are no minor snafu. A car that loses a wheel at speed often loses control, which can cause it to wreck, often taking other cars with it given NASCAR’s close racing style. Moreover, a loose wheel can become a high-speed projectile.

Stewart also mentioned that he would be fine if NASCAR switched to a three-lug wheel, or a single-nut wheel like they run in Formula One—just so long as teams are required to have them properly affixed.

Martin Truex Jr., whose car had a loose wheel at Bristol. Photo credit: Getty Images

NASCAR Levies A Totally Garbage Fine

NASCAR, however, took particular issue with Stewart placing the blame directly (and accurately) on NASCAR’s leadership. Stewart told the Mobil 1 event, as quoted by USA Today:

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We didn’t make the change to begin with. It’s not our responsibility. That’s their [NASCAR’s] responsibility. We did it [used all five lugnuts] for how many years in the sport – 50-plus years? Sixty-plus years? And now in the last two years now we don’t have to do that.

Last year it started; this year you see the problem getting worse. Well if you see a problem getting worse like that, where’s the bottom of that trend going to happen? It’s going to happen when somebody gets hurt, and that’s going to be one of the largest black eyes I can see NASCAR getting when they’ve worked so hard and done such a good job to make it safe.

Stewart’s comments were fair, acknowledging that NASCAR has worked hard to make things safe over the years while pointing out this massive misstep.

However, NASCAR fined him over it anyway, despite the fact that drivers and team owners have more of a vested interest in their own safety than, say, series executives who rarely make it out to race weekends.

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NASCAR cited a rule that bars drivers from making disparaging comments about NASCAR or its leadership. Unfortunately, this penalty suggests that NASCAR would rather have its drivers keep quiet on safety issues.

It’s a textbook example of what everyone worries about whenever a series says that they’re going to start penalizing drivers over less than flattering remarks. Penalizing drivers for being rightfully critical of the series where they race—especially those related to safety—is in no one’s best interest. Who else is going to point out things that need to change?

Naturally, NASCAR chairman Brian France defended the move while claiming that the series is all about keeping things safe:

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I would say this nobody has led, done more and achieved more in safety than we have. It is a never-ending assignment and we accept that. We do take offense that anything we do is somehow leading toward an unsafe environment. Safety ... that’s the most important thing we have to achieve.

Dude, if you really cared about safety with this, you’d let drivers voice their thoughts on it. This fine is not about safety. It’s about silence. It’s about glossing over a bad decision and hoping nobody notices.

Fortunately for Stewart, other drivers in the series are backing him up on this. The recently formed Sprint Cup Drivers Council sent a note to NBC Sports to say that they would be chipping in to pay Stewart’s fine, as they feel his opinion was valid and disagree with NASCAR’s decision to fine him for it.