NASCAR's Inconsistency Helped Tony Stewart, Hurt Regan Smith

NASCAR fans got a pretty doggone good show Sunday afternoon at Talladega -- especially if you're a fan of edge-of-your-seat-for-500-miles action.

But more than the action, what the fans at the track and the ones at home were ultimately left with was a big, big question.

When in the world is NASCAR going to find a consistent, plausible rule book?

I'll state it bluntly: Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s rookie driver Regan Smith got screwed on the final lap of the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway after NASCAR handed Tony Stewart the win -- his first of 2008. Smith, they said, broke the out-of-bounds rule by making a pass of Stewart under the yellow line just before the start/finish line.

Smith crossed the start/finish first and had seemingly handed Stewart a seventh-career 2nd-place finish at the Alabama track.

Smith deserved to be doing burnouts.

He deserved to be celebrating an improbable win in victory lane.

And, most of all, he did not deserve to be getting penalized for something a well-known driver got away with en route to a victory at the same track in 2003.

His name? Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In that event -- the April spring race at the 2.66-mile, high-banked, extremely fast track 30 minutes east of Birmingham -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a pass under the supposed out-of-bounds line around Matt Kenseth with five laps to go as the field drove through turn three.

Earnhardt Jr. would go on to win the race, and didn't face any sanction from NASCAR despite the fact that multiple teams lined up at the NASCAR official's hauler after the race demanding an answer for why his move wasn't illegal despite pre-race warnings of penalties for such tactics.

The win stood while the rest of the sport steamed.

And Sunday, the same rule came in to question, despite the fact Smith's move looked much more legitimate than Earnhardt Jr.'s move in 2003 that didn't garner a penalty. Naturally, that left Smith -- the driver competing for the rookie of the year title who has gotten next to zero publicity in 2008 -- with a question of why his move was so wrong.

"I was told the rule is that if you're forced down there you're the winner and on the last lap anything goes," said Smith.

And even if Smith was told that, it's sure hard to know for sure thanks to NASCAR feeling a complete unwillingness to ever publish a rule book for the general public to look over -- though it would be difficult to keep certain pages updated; certain pages that the sport seems to pencil in as things go along.

All of the rules governing the out-of-bounds line are stated in a pre-race drivers meeting, and NASCAR has had problems answering to all of the possibilities the rule creates since it came in effect a few years ago.

Even so, I don't see how Smith's move can be determined to be illegal because of the way he so craftily got to the inside of Stewart.

Smith made a swerve to the high side of the track, causing Stewart to swerve as well, and then darted for the bottom of the track where he pulled alongside Stewart's rear fender. Stewart then swerved again, clipping the nose of Smith's car and forcing him under the yellow line, but not stalling Smith's momentum as the No. 01 slid past Stewart's No. 20 at the line.

Shouldn't Smith be allowed to hold his position? Or should Smith, as he pondered after the race in an interview, hold his spot and cause Stewart to crash?

Well, in this case, it seems like NASCAR would have rather torn up a race car (Stewart's) instead of seeing a gutsy finish.

In the open-wheel IRL IndyCar Series, league rules specifically state that a driver has one move to block a car coming behind him, and that if that trailing car makes another move, the lead car will be penalized for excessive blocking if another move is made because of the danger it presents.

I don't see how such a rule wouldn't make sense for NASCAR to adopt, especially if it stated that at Talladega and Daytona -- where the out-of-bounds rules are in effect -- a driver could hold his position and get driven below the yellow line by the other car but continue to pass a car.

It's not right for a lead driver to simply be able to push a car down the track to prevent a pass.

Otherwise, NASCAR is simply setting itself up for way too much inconsistency and relying too heavily on judgment calls, when drivers should be able to settle a finish of the race on their own.

To me, there's nothing that happened during Sunday's finish that says that Smith's move was dangerous -- rather I thought Stewart's egregious blocking was the more dangerous component of the ending, but yet, he wasn't the one penalized.

Regan Smith got the extremely raw end of the Sunday's Talladega finish and you certainly can't help but feel bad for the guy that tried to go for the win and succeeded, only to have it taken away due to patsy call that has -- for far too long -- been the subject of way of too much inconsistency.

Let's hope NASCAR takes some notes from this.

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