TALLADEGA, Ala. - The season opened with a cheating scandal that threatened the integrity of NASCAR's biggest race of the year. A mere two months later, its credibility is again under scrutiny because Tony Stewart likened the sport to professional wrestling.
Even though the two-time champion retracted his comments, the damage was already done.
At a time when NASCAR is fighting sagging television ratings, flat attendance and a court challenge over sponsorship that could shake the entire sport, Stewart's rant was the last thing it needed.
"There's no question that comments like those made by Tony are bad for the sport," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "The amount of Fortune 500 companies, the promoters, most of the stakeholders, they look at those comments and say ‘Oh my gosh,' and that's not good for anyone."
Now it's up to NASCAR to fix it, starting with today's race at Talladega Superspeedway.
At the heart of Stewart's rant were allegations that NASCAR manipulates its events by using bogus debris cautions to orchestrate closer racing. The races are fake, he indicated, just like wrestling.
"I don't know that they've run a fair race all year," he said on his weekly radio show.
An hourlong meeting with NASCAR as the sun came up at Talladega on Friday changed Stewart's mind, and the outspoken driver humbly admitted he was wrong.
But his initial assessment struck a chord, particularly because those very debris cautions are so often debated throughout the garage, in the grandstands and even the television booth. Sometimes the debris can be spotted by everyone, but other times the drivers on the track can't even find it.
There were four debris cautions in Phoenix last weekend that fed Stewart's rage about the issue. A debris caution at Atlanta last month cost him a victory, and Jimmie Johnson lost a race at California in February because of one.
Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR champion turned television analyst, has repeatedly told viewers this season that if the Fox cameras can find the debris, the network will show it. So when the debris isn't shown, the perception that it doesn't exist is perpetuated.
Artie Kemper, lead director for Fox's race coverage, said the network tries on every occasion to locate the debris. "As soon as we're told where the debris is, our camera is there," Kemper said. "Sometimes we don't find it. Sometimes the tracks are big and the camera angle might be wrong or the lens might not be long enough. "Sometimes it's a mystery."
NASCAR maintains that it informs its television partners what every caution is for and where the debris can be located. "Now whether they choose to show it or not is their call to make," Helton said. Artie Kemper, lead director for Fox's race coverage, said the network tries on every occasion to locate the debris. "As soon as we're told where the debris is, our camera is there," Kemper said. "Sometimes we don't find it. Sometimes the tracks are big and the camera angle might be wrong or the lens might not be long enough. "Sometimes its a mystery."
Waltrip has called on NASCAR to collect the debris that warrants a caution and display it on a table for everyone in the garage to see.
"I think there needs to be a justification for the cautions in everybody's mind," he told USA Today. "The only way to have that is put the pieces on display. That solves the problem."
"I don't know that it's on us to sit down with Darrell Waltrip and convince him we are doing it right," he said. "He made a good career out of this sport. He won three championships and he and his family have a nice quality of life with it, and I recall on occasion he himself throwing out pieces of debris on the racetrack to get a caution to benefit himself.
"If he chooses to address that differently today in the position he's now in, you have to ask him."
NOTES: Jeff Gordon, the first driver to make a qualifying attempt Saturday for today's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, posted a lap of 192.069 mph and then watched 51 other drivers fail to knock him off the pole. David Gilliland matched Gordon's qualifying speed, but the four-time series champion was awarded his third pole this year by virtue of being ahead of the second-year driver in the points. ... Two-time Cup champion Stewart will start 32nd, former series champ Bobby Labonte will go off 35th and five-time Talladega champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 36th.