Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TALLADEGA, Ala. | The speech hasn’t changed in the seven years since NASCAR first delivered it during a 2001 driver’s meeting at Daytona.

“This is your warning,” race director David Hoots begins. “Do not go below the yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment you go below the yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged.”

So why the surprise that Regan Smith was penalized Sunday for dipping below the out-of-bounds line to pass Tony Stewart on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway?

The debate over the frantic finish raged on Monday with claims that the rookie driver was robbed of his first career victory because NASCAR used its judgment to give a two-time series champion a coveted Talladega victory. NASCAR defended its ruling late in the day, then cleared up any confusion about what’s allowed on the final lap of a restrictor-plate race.

NASCAR put the yellow-line policy in place in its first return to Daytona following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal 2001 accident. By outlawing a portion of the asphalt at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR shrunk the racing surface and took control of daredevil driving at the two most dangerous tracks on the circuit.

Stewart broke the rule that first race, dropping two tires below the line to avoid running into Johnny Benson after Benson tried to block Stewart’s attempted pass. Stewart was immediately black-flagged - a directive he ignored - and had a heated exchange with NASCAR following the race.

Hoots has yet to change the language of his prerace warning in the 29 Cup restrictor-plate races since. The script is so tight, drivers, crew chiefs and any other regular attendee know the directive by heart.

So when Smith passed Stewart below the line, then moved above it to cross the finish line first, Stewart knew the move would be disallowed.

“I’ve been a part of every one of the driver meetings since they implemented the yellow-line rule, and it always starts with ‘This is your warning. Do not improve your position below the yellow line,’” Stewart said Monday. “If you are passing another car and you are below the yellow line, back off, fall back behind the car you are trying to pass and you won’t be penalized.

“The drivers’ meetings have been very clear about that from Day 1. They’ve never wavered in the terminology they’ve used or the language they’ve used. It’s always been the same.”

But Smith disagreed and found a good deal of support across the garage.

It can be argued that Stewart forced him below the line to block Smith from passing, a maneuver that also can be penalized if NASCAR believes the intent was obvious.

Although Stewart admits he was blocking, the two cars were running bumper-to-bumper - not side-by-side - when Smith made the decision to slide below the line. And Stewart gave him room to return to the racing surface. Had Smith come back behind Stewart, no harm done. But Smith already had completed the pass by the time he moved back onto the surface.

NASCAR president Mike Helton said Monday that scoring officials did not believe Stewart forced Smith under the line. But it was mostly irrelevant because it wasn’t even the defense anyone was taking for Smith’s maneuver.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide