NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR driver finds out rookies can't break rules

This is who was hurt by NASCAR's ruling that drivers are not allowed to pass below the yellow line at the end of a race: Regan Smith.

This is who was helped: Tony Stewart, Lowe's Motor Speedway and everybody else.

Fans buy tickets to watch Stewart win and lose. They buy tickets because they want to be there when the next controversy breaks. Almost nobody will buy a ticket to the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway Saturday to watch Regan Smith.

Three days ago Smith dipped below the yellow line on the last lap of the AMP Energy 500 to pass Stewart and win for the first time. But crossing the line is against the rules and upon further review NASCAR penalized him and gave the race to Stewart.

Crossing the line isn't always against the rules, however. A driver who dipped below the yellow line to win a 2007 truck race was not penalized. Explained a NASCAR official to Observer colleague David Poole on the Sirius radio show that helped make Poole a star: a driver is entitled to “get what he can get” as he races to the checkered flag.

So why wasn't Regan Smith permitted to get what he could? Regan Smith did what drivers have been taught since they raced on the Florida sand. He went for the victory. And, like thousands of drivers before him, he crossed the line to do it.

NASCAR's rulebook might as well be written in sand. What do you think would have happened if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had crossed the yellow line? Even a veteran – Regan Smith is a rookie – would be tempted to go low if that's the only way he could win.

So here we are, Tony versus Dale Jr., last lap at Talladega Superspeedway, where all things Earnhardt are revered.

Ask Jeff Gordon. Gordon beat Dale Jr. to the finish line at Talladega four years ago and passed Dale Earnhardt Sr. for career victories by winning there last year. Fans responded on each occasion by throwing beer cans, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pork rinds, Crimson Tide T-shirts and balled-up NATIVE bumper stickers.

Can you imagine the reaction if Dale Jr. had crossed the finish line first and, as 100,000 fans screamed and cheered, NASCAR declared Stewart the winner?

The insurrection would have made the Alabama-Auburn football game look like a friendly game of touch. And some fans would never have watched a race again.

NASCAR is where big-time sports and big-time professional rasslin' meet. Races aren't fixed, obviously. But stars are protected. So is parity. If an NFL team dominates, the league doesn't change the rules to slow it down. If a manufacturer dominates, NASCAR finds a way to bring it back to the pack.

It's not what you did. It's who did it. Regan Smith, always two names, is 34th in the driver's standings, 21 places behind David Ragan. Tony, one name, is seventh, one of 12 drivers still competing for the championship. Fans of other sports talk about a level playing field. What playing field? The turns at Talladega are banked 33 degrees.