Should NASCAR Penalize Tony Stewart for Talladega Debacle?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2012

If only Tony Stewart would have yielded rather than tried to block, Sunday's demolition derby would likely not have resulted.
If only Tony Stewart would have yielded rather than tried to block, Sunday's demolition derby would likely not have resulted.John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

If Tony Stewart played football, he'd make a great defensive end.

Sure, maybe he's a little small size-wise, but he has the heart of somebody like retired NFL star Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who was a gigantic 6-foot-9 and nearly 300 pounds in the prime of his career.

So what does a good defensive end do? He blocks opponents from trying to get around him, while at the same time, pursuing the prize, namely the opposing quarterback.

It's kind of the same principle in NASCAR and at arguably its most exciting track, Talladega Superspeedway, where drivers often don't think twice about blocking others from getting past them, all in pursuit of the checkered flag.

But the way Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 played out at the gigantic 2.66-mile high-speed oval left a lot to be desired...not to mention a lot of food for thought.

We know that places like Talladega are ticking time bombs for the kind of mechanical carnage we saw in Sunday's massive wreck that destroyed nearly two dozen race cars, at an average cost of close to $100,000 per vehicle.

You don't need a calculator to realize that well over $2 million in damage resulted from that spectacular wreck.

The sad thing is it could have been avoided.

To his credit, Stewart manned up and admitted he was completely at fault and caused the massive pile-up. He even said it on national TV, with a "boy, did I do a dumb thing" kind of smile on his face, clearly stating he was trying to block Michael Waltrip and the trailing Casey Mears, who both were enjoying a fast ride to the front.

But instead of letting Waltrip and Mears go past, if for nothing else because they had faster cars at that moment, Stewart decided to come down on Waltrip to, at the very least, get Waltrip to jump on the brakes and end any attempt to get past Stewart and one last-lap shot at winning.

Waltrip had nowhere to go and was going way too fast to keep from plowing into the rear of Stewart's car. End result: bing-bang-boom, Stewart's car goes airborne and nearly two dozen race cars are torn up beyond repair.

This isn't the first time we've seen something like this at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Brad Keselowski a few years ago (more on that in a minute) and nearly wound up in the grandstands. Ryan Newman has had more end-over-ends at 'Dega than he wants to remember, not to mention his predecessor, Rusty Wallace, most coming due to being the blocker or the blocked.

Sure, what we saw Sunday was great theater, and the resulting wreck made virtually every TV sports highlight show in the country, if not much of the rest of the world. Face it, folks, you don't get this kind of jaw-dropping awe and excitement in places like IndyCar or Formula One.

But it also seems that memories are pretty short in NASCAR. When Edwards went flying in the spring 2009 race at 'Dega after trying to block Keselowski, who artfully managed to control his car and continue on to the finish line, Cousin Carl took out a good chunk of fencing and support poles.

But for the grace of God, he almost ended up in the seats and probably would have killed a number of fans that were doing nothing more than having a good time and trying to enjoy a good race.

As it was, debris from that wreck injured several fans and gave NASCAR officials pause that something needed to be done to keep something like that from ever happening again.

The sport and sanctioning body both dodged a bullet in that instance. And while improvements were quickly made to the track's catch fence, the one improvement that made the most sense was never made.

I'm talking about blocking.

Sure, some people call it an "art," where you give anyone who thinks they can get past you a chance to pause before trying to overtake you, knowing full well that such action has the result of ending in the same ugly consequence we saw Sunday.

Others call blocking a necessary evil of sorts, where one driver "protects" his spot on the race track by preventing other drivers from getting past.

Somehow, the fact that it's better to see the type of resulting and dangerous mayhem that took place Sunday than either barring all (or at the very least, most semblances of blocking) seems to have gotten lost on those that make the rules of the sport.

Sure, NASCAR got tons of attention for Sunday's demolition derby. But is that really the kind of attention the sport needs?

I don't think so.

Stewart's legal yet also careless) actions not only ruined the day for a number of drivers, six races from now in the season finale at Homestead, you can potentially point a finger at that particular wreck as knocking a potential championship contender out of contention for the Chase title.

NASCAR already has a system in place where the flagman displays a flag to drivers that are either going too slow or need to move out of the way of faster oncoming drivers.

Is it asking too much to have a similar flag or rule to effectively end (or at least limit) blocking at places like Talladega, so as to avoid yet another debacle like we saw Sunday?

While it was great crashing and theater, it was bad racing.

How many more cars need to go up in the air, let alone how many others deserve to be wrecked when they're simply racing hard and have nowhere to go once "the big one" commences?

At the very least, what Stewart did Sunday was selfish, putting himself and his team's hopes for a good finish ahead of practical, rational logic, knowing that would could happen as a result of his blocking actions did ultimately wind up happening.

And probably with an end result that was a lot worse than Stewart probably ever could imagine. To a man, how many drivers in post-race interviews said that in all their collective years of racing, they have never seen anything like what transpired Sunday afternoon at 'Dega.

Blocking has long been an accepted part of the sport. We get that. And at slower-speed places like Martinsville, Bristol, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Dover and other shorter-length tracks, blocking is an accepted practice.

But when you're doing 200 mph down the frontstretch or backstretch at Talladega, in a pack of 20 or more cars, and you intentionally pull in front of an oncoming driver simply because you don't want him to get past you, that's just plain wrong.

Put it in another context: say you the race fan are driving down the freeway, minding your own business, maybe even speeding a bit to get somewhere a bit faster, only to have someone pull in front of you without warning, simply because they want to slow you down...for whatever reason.

If you hit their car, sure, they're at fault, as Stewart admitted he was. But in the whole big scheme of things, who makes the guy that pulls in front of you judge and jury in one to keep you from any further forward progress?

Admittedly in Sunday's instance, NASCAR's hands are tied. Even if the sanctioning body wanted to penalize Stewart for, at the very least, stupidity, it can't because his actions were within the parameters of current rules.

But frankly, some people could make a case that NASCAR should invoke its "actions detrimental to stock car racing" catchall edict that it likes to use when it wants to send a message that certain actions won't be tolerated in the sport.

Because if what Stewart did wasn't detrimental to the sport, fans and to the other drivers that got caught up in the mess he started, I don't know what is.