TALLADEGA, Ala. - Before he was allowed in the racetrack, NASCAR made sure Tony Stewart knew the rules.
Summoned to a 6 a.m. meeting Friday morning with top series officials, the two-time champion retracted every bit of the sharp rant he launched against NASCAR while admitting he damaged the sport's credibility by likening it to professional wrestling.
"I'm sure I did hurt the integrity of it, and unfairly," he said.
Although Stewart wasn't punished for the comments he made on his weekly Sirius Satellite Radio show, NASCAR did fine him $10,000 for skipping a post-race news conference in Phoenix last week. He also was placed on probation through the end of the year.
"I can assure you, Tony Stewart knows where he stands with NASCAR right now," spokesman Jim Hunter said.
That was obvious as a humbled Stewart issued several mea culpas after his hourlong meeting with NASCAR. His team was forbidden from unloading Stewart's car until the meeting concluded, forcing his crew to wait at Talladega Superspeedway while the driver met with president Mike Helton, competition director Robin Pemberton and series director John Darby.
"It's a little tender for me to sit down right now," Stewart deadpanned after the meeting.
But Stewart otherwise was serious about the controversy he started by accusing NASCAR of using bogus debris cautions to orchestrate the races. The comments were made on his Tuesday night radio show, and in comparing NASCAR to wrestling, Stewart perpetuated every stereotype that NASCAR battles in mainstream America.
For that, some believed Stewart should have been punished severely.
"He's a spoiled little brat," rival car owner Felix Sabates said. "NASCAR should suspend him - park him for the rest of year. Irresponsible comments like that affect the entire sport.
"If he was my driver, I would have fired him on the spot."
"If he wasn't driving a race car, he'd be pumping gas at a service station because his personality wouldn't get him hired anywhere else." But it's Stewart's personality - and his willingness to speak his mind - that has made him one of NASCAR's most popular drivers. His nine-year career has been rife with on-track dominance that's often overshadowed by his off-track blunders.
"He's like the Rosie O'Donnell of NASCAR," four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said. "Controversy is something that he's used to. To me, it brings a flavor to the sport."
In this case, though, it also brought unfavorable attention.
Weary of untimely debris cautions this season, Stewart used his radio show to question the validity of them. He alleged that NASCAR calls for them when the leader is running away with a race or when a favorite driver is about to be lapped.
"It's like playing God," he said on his show. "They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it. It's happened too many times this year. I guess NASCAR thinks, ‘Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing, too.' I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR.
"I don't know that they've run a fair race all year."
NASCAR officiates its races from a tower above the track with an eight-member team that includes Helton, Pemberton and Darby. Stewart said the trio viewed his comments as a personal attack on them, and they apparently spent much of the meeting explaining to Stewart how and why cautions are called.
When it was over, Stewart was backpedaling.
"They assured me that every time they call a caution for debris on the racetrack, there is legitimate debris out there," he said. "Until there is something that proves them wrong, that group of people - I'm going to believe."
Stewart, who also said on his radio show that he had no contractual obligation to speak to the media and NASCAR could not force him to, said he learned Friday morning that also was wrong.
"I was 100 percent wrong on that one," he said.
NASCAR officials were frustrated they've had to resort to punishing Stewart to get him to cooperate with their media policies, but insisted Friday's fine was not retaliation for his radio rant.
Hunter said NASCAR tries to speak to drivers before issuing a penalty, and in this case, Stewart would not return several phone messages left for him during the week. Helton finally made contact with him Thursday night at the track and called the early morning meeting. The timing of the meeting was not lost on Stewart or his rival competitors, who noted how difficult it must have been for the notoriously nocturnal driver to make it.
Stewart emerged from the meeting with a wish that he had voiced his complaints privately.
"I think I just went overboard on my delivery," he said. "I've always been rough around the edges and there hasn't been sandpaper or buffer yet that can smooth me out. But that's what makes this sport what it is.
"If you have 43 guys all the same and all polished, all you got is a bunch of marbles running around out there."