Selena Roberts
Tuesday February 19th, 2008

Amid the tense mad dash to the end of the Sunday's Daytona 500, the irascible Tony Stewart had to wonder what his old foil Kurt Busch had up his blue Miller-Lite sleeve.

Was it a counterpunch?

A week earlier, as the track tale goes at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart threw a fist at Busch behind closed doors at a NASCAR meeting after their two cars tangled on the track during practice.

Now Busch had a chance to fight back. But in surprisingly passive-aggressive form, Busch retaliated with selflessness, planting his bumper behind Penske teammate Ryan Newman as they slipped to the high side of Stewart's orange-splashed Toyota. Busch pushed Newman like a child on a swing, propelling the No. 12 car past Stewart for victory.

"He chose to be a teammate," Newman said of Busch. "And that's the most honorable thing."

As he struggled to win his first Daytona, with no allies to help him, Stewart ceded the outside to Penske's dynamic duo in Dodges, allowing the aggressive drivers to have the right of way.

"Maybe [Stewart] did think twice before he jumped up high, that it was me up there," Busch said with a sly grin. "Instead of worrying about who it was, he should have just went there."

Sounds like fightin' words, which, in the latest incarnation of NASCAR, is sweet nectar to officials' ears these days. The finish of the Daytona 500 was proof that there can be heat between rivals -- even a shove or two -- but it doesn't have to interfere with the integrity of the race. This is proof the drivers can police themselves.

NASCAR has come around on this issue. There will be no more trips to etiquette school for drivers with salty mouths, or fines for pedal pushers who tangle with a harmless hothead, or a scolding for the next racer to kick a dent in an opponent's door.

This isn't your corporate daddy's politically-tuned NASCAR, anymore. This is your throwback sport for every hardcore Bubba it alienated along its growth spurt. So welcome back Hank Williams lovers, so long to pop stars on the loudspeakers.

NASCAR is reclaiming its rural roots this year with a "Back to Basics" policy, promising to restore personality to what has been an over-processed product.

This is not an epiphany as much as it is a marketing tool. But so be it. It's the right move. Plenty of sports, from the NBA to Major League Baseball, dismiss falling TV ratings and a decline in audience share as the inevitability of the Internet. As many commissioners have sighed, How can we compete for eyeballs when there are YouTube-files and Google-ites stealing our spectators?

Well, shut my mouth, say NASCAR officials, who have, in recovering their southern accent, decided to make change instead of excuses.

So if a Busch-Stewart feud simmers over the season, fine by NASCAR. Or make that no fine by NASCAR. For the past few seasons, NASCAR officials have been in the wallet of drivers every time they've uttered a word offensive to the sensitive ears of sponsors, like the $25,000 Stewart was hit with for cursing on camera.

But conflict is part of the sport's rich history, underscored with infield tussles involving legends like Bobby and Donnie Allison vs. Cale Yarborough in 1979. Venting is in the tapestry of a sport borne from rebellious moonshine runners as when Kevin Harvick's crew jumped on Ricky Rudd's hood out of anger in 2003.

"We're relooking and making sure that our policies of enforcement don't make it where our drivers can't express themselves," said NASCAR's CEO Brian France just before Speedweeks. "There are lots of characters in our sport. There's lots of emotion flying fast and heavy at the events.

"If you were in our position, what you're always worried about really isn't necessarily the specific incident, it's really escalation. That's what commissioners and officials in any sport are mostly concerned with.

"But on your way to making sure things don't escalate, you want to be pretty stern with your penalties. There's no question it can put a cloud or restrict, rather, the drivers expressing themselves. We want to see more of that."

Some drivers are skeptical about how much liberty free speech will be given, but at the Daytona 500, raw expression was in full bloom.

No one is better at transparent feelings than Stewart.

"My car was absolutely one of the worst cars I've ever driven in my life the first half of the race," said Stewart, who recovered in the second half and gained the lead. "It breaks your heart. You know, you spend 10 days here trying to win the biggest stock car race of the year. When you know you've got a car that's capable of running up front and you can't capitalize on it ... I mean, it just absolutely crushes you."

The worst part of his misery was being outmaneuvered in the end by Newman and, more importantly, Busch.

"I just made the wrong decision on the backstretch," Stewart admitted.

Who knew what Busch had up his sleeve? As it turned out, Busch delivered a counterpunch with an act of beautiful Penske teamwork, with a devastating blow to Stewart in, say, a passive-aggressive way as he nudged Newman to victory.

Now that's a final lap with character. Now that's back to NASCAR basics.

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