KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Tony Stewart took a verbal swipe at NASCAR on Saturday, insisting friend and competitor Dale Earnhardt Jr. should not have lost points for cursing during a live TV interview last weekend.
Instead of leading by 13 points, Earnhardt enters Sunday's Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway trailing Kurt Busch by 12 points after the third of 10 races in NASCAR's new playoff-style championship format. Junior was fined $10,000 and docked 25 points for using inappropriate language during the interview in Victory Lane at Talladega.
Stewart, long NASCAR's bad boy, is no stranger to penalties. Most recently, he was fined $50,000, had 25 points taken away and was placed on probation for allegedly hitting Brian Vickers during a postrace confrontation in June at Sonoma.
But the severity of Earnhardt's penalty irritated the 2002 series champion.
''I think we're starting to nitpick and scrutinize way too much in this series,'' the often outspoken Stewart said. ''Since when does something that somebody says have an effect on winning the championship?
''What he said didn't cheat anybody on the racetrack. It didn't have any effect on how the race was run. That (penalty) can have an effect on millions of dollars and how their sponsors have to handle this now, and the pressure it has put on their team. It's been totally unfair to him and his race team.''
Stewart also wondered what other missteps might result in a penalty from NASCAR.
''What's going to be the next thing?'' he asked. ''If we don't show up to the car for practice on time are we going to lose 25 points for that next? Where is it realistically going to end?''
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said he talked with Stewart about his objections to the Earnhardt penalty.
''I appreciate Tony's candor, and I think everybody else in NASCAR management appreciates that candor,'' Hunter said. ''This is another case that there is some strong disagreement.''
Earnhardt suggested on Friday that NASCAR consider changing its policy on non-competition penalties and simply raising the fines to $100,000 or $200,000 for slips of the tongue like his.
''The reason we got into penalizing points as opposed to just money was because penalizing money was not getting the job done,'' Hunter said. ''Whether you agree or disagree, we promote this sport as a family sport. As a result of that, to get their attention, we use the loss of points.''
Hunter also pointed to the precedent that was set earlier this year when Busch Series drivers Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday Jr. were both docked 25 points for cursing during live radio interviews.
''In this particular instance, with the precedent having been set, we think this was the right decision,'' Hunter said. ''At the end of this season, as we do every year, I'm sure we'll review the whole season."
Meanwhile, the championship battle goes on with the top nine drivers bunched within 159 points of the lead.
Jeff Gordon, who has won two of the three previous Kansas races, is third in the points, followed by Mark Martin, defending series champion Matt Kenseth, Stewart, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, Jimmie Johnson and Jeremy Mayfield.
Newman, 146 points behind Busch, is the defending race winner and is hopeful of getting back into the championship hunt.
''I think the rest of the season is all about racetracks and not what you might get caught up in and what you might not get caught up in,'' Newman said. ''It's just racing.
''I think we've got top fives at every track in the next seven, so I hope we'll be good. That has usually been our strong part of the season the past two years.''
Stewart, who trails the leader by 139 points, came from far behind in the second half of his championship season and remains confident he can still compete for another title with seven races remaining.
''We're close enough right now in the points that, theoretically, we could even be leading or be second in the points at the end of the day tomorrow,'' Stewart said. ''Seven weeks is a long time and it's not out of my reach by any means.
''Everybody in the chase is still in it. Anything can happen in this series from week to week and nobody is mathematically eliminated, yet.''
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