Monday, October 06, 2008

Stewart, où il appartient à Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Records are meant to be broken, not rules.

But somewhere along the way, Regan Smith got those two things radically confused in Sunday's Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The rule that Smith seemed to have a problem with in Sunday's race can't be more crystal clear: no passing under the yellow line to advance your position at Talladega. And there's no arguing that Smith did just that on the final lap of the race.

So even though he, not Tony Stewart, crossed the finish line first, NASCAR was correct in declaring Stewart the winner.

Smith can whine and complain, like he did, that Stewart blocked him, more or less "forcing" him below the yellow line, but that's also within the rules. Stewart was simply blocking Smith to maintain his own position and prevent Smith from getting around him.

"Damn right I did," said Stewart, who ended his 43-race winless streak. "I've lost Daytona 500s and have lost races here at Talladega because somebody blocked. That's just the name of the game."

In a race filled with accidents that damaged the championship chances of a number of Chase drivers, including top challengers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, it ultimately came down to Stewart, the seasoned veteran looking for his first victory of the year, versus Regan Smith, the 25-year-old looking for his first career Cup victory.

As the two took the white flag signaling the final lap, Stewart held the lead, with Smith glued to his back bumper.

Coming out of the final turn, Stewart dove down to the bottom of the track. Smith did, too.

He could have lifted off the gas or nailed the brakes, but he chose not to. Instead, he veered below the yellow line, passed Stewart and remained in the lead position as the two crossed the finish line.

Smith and his crew thought they had their first win and began celebrating. But it was short lived. Thirty seconds later, NASCAR ruled that Smith indeed had passed Stewart for the lead while below the yellow line.

"I've always got told that the rule is if you get forced down there, then you're the winner of the race, that on the last lap anything goes," said Smith. "That's what they always say in the drivers' meeting, so I was going with that. I got forced down, had a nose inside of him and could have piled up the whole field, and I guess that would have been a cooler finish.

"Second sucks, that's all I can say. I should be doing burnouts out there."

Unfortunately, Smith didn't get second, either. When NASCAR officials reviewed the videotape, they further penalized Smith and dropped him to the last car on the lead lap – 18th.

"I've sat in those meetings since they've had the yellow line rule and the first thing (race director) David Hoots always says is, 'This is your warning about staying above the yellow line and racing above the yellow line,' " Stewart said. "It's always preceded by aggressive driving zones and say that starts with the drop of the green flag until the end at the checkered flag, with emphasis in the corners and tri-oval.

"It's been the same speech since they came up with that rule and they've never wavered from it. It's pretty self-explanatory, I think."

Smith weakly tried to protest, but it fell upon deaf ears at the NASCAR hauler.

So, in a little more than one minute, Smith went from winning the race, to second place and ultimately to 18th.

There was a certain sense of irony in the way Sunday's race played out, because Stewart was once in Smith's position – and could empathize with his protest.

It was at Daytona in July 2001, shortly after NASCAR implemented the rule that there would be no advancing of position if a car passes another under the yellow line – a rule that only applies to Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor plate tracks on the circuit. In that race, Stewart was making a move toward the front, trying to get as good a finish as he could. He wound up passing another car under the yellow line and felt pretty good that he had finished sixth.


NASCAR quickly broke out the new rule, literally shoved it in his face and more or less told him, "Read the fine print. You're in violation."

And with that, Stewart went from what he thought was a sure-fire, sixth-place finish to being penalized and ultimately ending up with a mediocre 26th-place finish.

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli remembers that July day in Daytona all too well.

"We were the first car penalized in the July 2001 race at Daytona," Zipadelli said. "We finished sixth and they put us back to the last car on the lead lap, and it was on the last lap. We kind of got forced below there, just to avoid a big wreck.

"If I got my handout that they gave today, it said that on the bottom of it. It's pretty clear-cut."

In another twist of irony, while Stewart could empathize with Smith's plight, Zippy wouldn't.

"Obviously, somebody knew what the rules were," Zipadelli said of NASCAR's ruling. "I mean, (Smith) went below the yellow line and got penalized. I think it's been pretty clear for six or seven years now that if you advance your position below the yellow line, you're going to lose your position."

Call it one of the most controversial non-controversies that Stewart has ever been involved in.

"There's always been people blocking," Stewart said. "The nice thing is I was on the right end of it this time. Trust me, I've got no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out."

So, as NASCAR puts race No. 4 of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup into the record book for good, those who may think that Smith got hosed have it all wrong.

Every other driver and crew chief in Sunday's pre-race drivers' meeting heard Hoots once again remind them about the rule against passing below the yellow line. The only one who seemed not to hear it was Smith.

"He got a run on me, but I had to protect my line," Stewart said. "That's how it goes here at Talladega."

And that is certainly within the rules.
Stewart, where he belongs at Talladega


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