The most inexplicable rule change in years - maybe ever - has become a major controversy. NASCAR is allowing teams to secure tires with three to four lugnuts, not all five. It has become controversial because several drivers have spoken against the change - the most public is Tony Stewart, and his comments have gotten him a $35,000 fine by NASCAR, which the NASCAR Drivers Council has stated it will pay.
That NASCAR even implemented this rule is baffling, with wanting to "spice up" pitstops somehow being considered a worthwhile competitive goal. That it is self-evident nonsense - missing even one lugnut inevitably weakens the wheel and leads to trouble - that NASCAR decision-makers somehow didn't want to see is even more disturbing, for it indicates even less grasp of the inner workings of the sport in the sanctioning body's leadership than even pessimists thought.
Stewart has been controversial almost from his rookie season, and his on- and off-track deportment has often been malicious (the use of bodyguards in his Chili Bowl confrontation with a heckler curiously has gone unnoticed - it's the kind of thing classic thugs have) - and we of course know it became lethal in 2014. None of that matters here - NASCAR fining Stewart is wrong not least for the fact that such fines inherently inhibit honest discussion.
Kurt Busch has pushed for NASCAR to convert to one central lugnut as other racing series use - the problem is it's totally unnecessary - just tighten all five lugnuts.
Racing writer Randy Hallman compares Stewart's outspokenness to Dale Earnhardt Sr., saying he was "a driver not hesitant to say what he believed needed to be said." It's a spotty analogy given what Earnhardt said often had a self-serving quality or wasn't terribly insightful - for one, Earnhardt's famous "Bill France must be rolling over in his grave" comment about the lack of passing in the 2000 Daytona 500 was ultimately little better than a Captain Obvious moment. I don't particularly remember one policy battle with NASCAR Earnhardt ever was right about.
Moreover Hallman's premise that drivers since Earnhardt's death have lacked outspokenness is wrong - drivers speaking out became more, rather than less, prevalent in 2001 and after; even rumors of drivers acting on "what (they) believed needed to be said" in 2001 got media attention, best shown by the infamous Stock Car Reporters website and its sham Talladega-boycott story authored before the April 2001 500-miler there.
What's struck me about the last fifteen years is not lack of driver outspokenness but a mild prevalence of it, more of such than people seem to think. This is why NASCAR has the low downforce package despite the universal evidence of history from 1998 onward that the concept does not work - and isn't this year, either.
Stewart's outspokenness needs to be taken on an individual basis - what is the issue, what is he saying, does what he's saying jibe with what's really going on? It's the same with everyone else. NASCAR indeed is wrong to fine him here - and they need a better explanation than Scott Miller's mealy-mouthed assertion that NASCAR will reevaluate the lugnut rule.
Sports always need honest discussion - and it's a two-way street, applying to the Drivers Council as well as NASCAR.