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NASCAR looks to silence drivers critical of the sport

Here's a good one: what do Chad Ochocinco, LeBron James, Mark Cuban and Philip Rivers have in common?

Yes, they're all superstar owners and athletes. But each of them has also been fined in the last year for actions the NFL or NBA feels are detrimental to their brand. Whether for criticizing officials, taunting, or being just plain nuts (Ochocinco), these gentle reminders are given to athletes to let them know who's really in charge. Criticism can only be tolerated so much, a line drawn in the sand so that superstars don't send a freedom-of-speech message that shackles the industry to sagging ticket sales. Whether you like it or not, today's sports are also businesses where money talks -- not people who have a handful of public complaints about the rules.

That's why, to a certain extent you can understand yesterday's AP story about two superstar drivers having been fined, one up to $50,000, for comments "detrimental to the sport." Not only does it bring NASCAR in line with its peers, it drives home the message of a "shut up and drive" meeting last summer where they stressed the importance of putting on a happy, healthy face for the fans. Positivity breeds positivity was their message, fearing public digs on the car, debris cautions, competition and race tracks had become the latest in a long list of problems turning fans away.

"No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business -- nor can we," said NASCAR's Managing Director of Corporate Communications, Ramsey Poston, in a blog this afternoon. "It is the sanctioning body's obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport."

But in hiding these infractions, NASCAR misses the boat on the one big difference between the sports and its stick 'n' ball brethren: public transparency. Those other sports may hide from their problems, but when it comes to crime and punishment you know every minute detail. It's part of an extensive checks and balances system, one where fans, the media and a players' union can ensure their sport doesn't cross the line between firm discipline and terrorizing its participants.

By keeping these fines secret, NASCAR doesn't give the public the right to judge. Instead, they come off looking like Big Brother, selectively managing a rehearsed "script" in private to fit their needs. At least the "Have at it, Boys!" message is becoming clearer; and by clearer, I mean more mixed up than the water in the Gulf of Mexico these days. Feel free to drive like hell on the race track, but make sure you tow the company line as soon as you're off it? That's a direct contradiction if I've ever heard one.

Let's move on to the mailbag. As always, real questions from real readers, and what a fine bunch we had this week. Put yourself in position to make the cut by emailing tbowles81@yahoo.com or Twitter at NASCARBowles.

NASCAR has always had two sets of rules for the Champs and the others. Why doesn't NASCAR admit that to the public?

-- Dane, Evans, Ga.

This argument is something I get a lot, one that's gaining momentum after this latest breaking news. But I don't think NASCAR's policy is about separating champions and challengers. They're not protecting Jimmie Johnson, but protecting the brand. Fans asked me on Twitter if drivers could be fined for complaining about their individual setup or the team. No! That's not what this policy is about. It's about saying things like, "NASCAR sucks," "debris cautions are fake," or "restrictor plates are going to kill us" -- statements that will give NASCAR additional scrutiny and, in theory, make fans stop watching.

By keeping these fines private, the sport was hoping to divert any criticism from penalizing people for freedom of speech, another way in which they felt fans would turn away. But in the end, a long history of meeting behind closed doors is what people like the least, which means they've shot themselves directly in the foot by trying to hide.

Spent over 20 years as an army dependent - I know how if feels to have to keep your mouth shut in public.

-- MsNascar823

I think that's the biggest question, Ms. NASCAR -- How much is the threat of fines truly keeping people from saying what they think? This information went public on Monday, but you bet drivers talk in private inside the garage. People had to know others got fined -- yet we've still seen virtually everyone speak their mind at some point this year. Just like Phil Jackson won't stop criticizing the refs in the NBA over $25,000, you would think NASCAR drivers make enough a $50,000 fine shouldn't guarantee silence.

I can tell you this much: it's a question we'll have the answer to by the end of Friday Media Day at Pocono. Everyone and their mother will be hammered about this policy.

On to Indy attendance, which has now dropped 50 percent for the Brickyard 400 since 2005. There are two competing schools of thought here:

It's a boring race, plain and simple. We can't go out there and sit in 95 degree heat all day, fight the traffic in and out to watch 160 parade laps. I get the aero tightness and all, but if you can't pass, what's the point of racing? They may as well have qualifying and pass out the checks. That's close to what we got on Sunday. If Brian Pattie doesn't make the wrong call, we watch JPM cruise to victory.

-- Joe, Indianapolis

Joe's got a great point. Since the 2008 tire debacle turned local fans off, Goodyear's overcompensated by bringing a tire that's too conservative over the course of a full fuel run. It makes passing anywhere from difficult to impossible, providing a product that's too much of a single-file parade for fans to spend their hard-earned money to go pay attention.

Of course, not everyone agrees...

I'm sorry, but I live here in Indiana and without exception, every single person I've talked to who had been to the race in years prior but who decided not to come this year based their decision on finances, not tires or conservative runs or a boring race or even the heat (you'll see plenty of commentators blaming the boiling temps...it was hotter in 2000 and the place was packed). If you're a true racing fan, it's exciting no matter what happens. The people who say the race is "boring" because there aren't accidents or four-wide racing are not the true fans, and as far as I'm concerned they can stay home and watch demolition derbies.

This is the only vacation we take all year, and it's a "staycation" for us because we can't afford anything else. Drop the ticket prices and you'll see a jump in attendance... opening the infield up for general admission was a move in the right direction, but ticket prices have jumped in the past 10 years and it's ridiculous to pay $90 for seats that are only worth $60-75.

Four seats in a decent section: $360

Hotel room in decent part of town: $600+

Food for four people for three days: $150+

Food at track on race day for four people: $40

Beverages for four people for three days: $30 (Gatorade), $100-200 (beer)

Gas to and from: $100 if you're out of town/state

Total: around $1300

How can people afford that?

Oh, by the way, there are plenty of us who enjoy NASCAR at the Brickyard, even if a lot of it is single-line racing. Not only do we love racing, but we love the family time. We enjoy ourselves and have fun. Isn't that what it is about?

-- Kaye, Indiana

We'll let Kaye's comments stand on their own. It's definitely a topic we could debate long into the night, but what's not debatable are the TV ratings (down 12.5 percent) and the attendance numbers. If the downward trend continues, it becomes unprofitable for Indy to stage the race -- and then, voila! The Brickyard 400 gets wiped off the schedule no matter what the silly reason is.

One other note about tickets. We mentioned last week how out of control Chicagoland prices are, with the caveat they charge for not just the Cup race but all the events over the course of the weekend -- even if you're just coming for one day. Well, check out this email a fan actually wrote to the head of Chicagoland Speedway -- fascinating stuff:

We had four people who would have come down for the Saturday Cup race. I have been trying to get these guys to come down to your track for years. They don't have a full weekend to attend both races, [so they didn't come.] Plus, the price is higher now than last year [for us]. Most other tracks have lowered the price of their tickets, but you guys raised yours! Amazing! No wonder why less and less people are coming to your track. It's pretty bad when you go to the ticket window on Saturday and still have to buy Friday's Nationwide race to get in. I watched a group of 10 or 12 people turn away from your ticket window because they wouldn't buy both days on principle. No other venue in Chicago does this. Not the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, or the Blackhawks would ever try and sell a ticket to yesterday's game! Are you guys crazy? Do you ever think those fans will come back again?

Wow, cant wait to see how many people are at the ARCA and Indy race this year!

I will be there, but I don't think many other people will.

-- Bill Betke, Hebron, Ill.

On to Carl-Brad...

Nice articles this week! I read one about Harvick and Hamlin not liking what Edwards did to Keselowski. Wasn't Harvick once parked for rough driving? Hamlin purposely wrecked Keselowski for payback. The word hypocrite springs to mind. Now aggressive driver Jeff Gordon is piping in with his two cents.

One more thought, When Carl was wrecked into the fence at Talladega, where was the outrage? Edwards handled it like a man. I wonder what Newman thought of Edwards' last incident with Keselowski, I would bet he didn't think it was that horrible.

-- Dale McKenzie

Au contraire, Dale. Let's give some highlights of Newman's response to the incident (which could probably have left him on the secret NASCAR fine list):

"I don''t think NASCAR has taken care of the situation. What is that for Carl, his second probation this year? I don't know what probation actually means anymore. So, yeah, when we used to get probation for the season, and then when you crash somebody and put them upside down and they almost get killed, you get probation for three races. I don't quite understand that."

"Going out there and purposely crashing somebody; turning right or turning left just to crash 'em on purpose, whether you're winning the race or not, is not at all 'Have at it, Boys'. Some people have thought of manslaughter or attempted manslaughter, but that's closer to what it is. That's not 'Have at it, Boys.'"

"We should paint up a No. 99 or No. 88 Chevy Impala for Carl to go race demolition derbies with, if that's the case. Brad just needs to go up there, lay one across his lip, and everything will be fine."

Maybe it's just me ... but I don't think Ryan and Carl are in the same corner on this one. As for other drivers being hypocritical, absolutely I agree with you. Keep in mind that Harvick especially has always been Edwards' enemy, the two even getting into a bit of a scuffle at Charlotte in 2008. It's been a theme in sports since the beginning of time; when a fellow rival goes down, pour on the agony and go for the knockout punch. But Edwards wasn't as isolated as you might think inside the garage. There were plenty who supported him, with perhaps the most shocking ally coming in Kyle Busch -- the same guy Edwards claimed piledrove him in a Nationwide Series race two years ago.

See? Enemies today, friends tomorrow under the right circumstances. It's just how this sport works.

One point overlooked in the Brad/Carl dustup is that impact on all those other Nationwide teams that brought home wrecked cars. The Nationwide series has money problems with many of the teams just getting by at best.

Carl and Brad have no worries about having plenty of equipment on hand. How about the other teams behind them? And all for 30 points in the Nationwide Series. They brought their Sprint Cup feud and monies to the race. You see it all too often.

-- Jim Pastorius, Raleigh, NC

Great point, Jim, and reason No. 75 why NASCAR is addressing the issue of too many Cup guys running full-time in the Nationwide Series. It's hard enough for these drivers to compete against the big guns, but when a wreck like that tears up the only equipment they've got? Unacceptable.

Hard for guys to develop as drivers when they're bringing home a hunk of burning sheet metal at the checkered flag, all due to a fight that should be confined to the big leagues.

If I was Brad's grandfather, (and I am a grandfather) what I would suggest is wait until the last race before the cutoff for the Chase, gently put Carl into the fence, and say "Sorry" that you missed the Chase due to me hitting you -- and say it with a smile, of course. Then, when you are being interviewed after the race, express your mock sympathy for Carl and his sponsors, etc. What is wrong with these young drivers today that they don't know revenge is a dish best served cold?

-- James Boyer, Flower Mound, Tex.

That's exactly why NASCAR had to act for both drivers, James. I'll let another fan take it from here...

It's pretty clear what's going on. Keselowski simply can't let Edwards keep doing this to him, so he was going to have to respond, and in doing so there was a good chance he would knock Edwards out of the Chase, a disaster to NASCAR. So that's why the probation for Keselowski. But anyone who looks at these things fairly would see that, in fact, Edwards was the instigator, and was in the wrong at Talladega, Atlanta, and this latest incident. So Edwards had to be punished for fairness' sake.

NASCAR really screwed up at Atlanta. That was, in most respects, far worse than this. If they'd done their jobs then and sat him for a race, or at least penalized him somewhat harshly, then this wouldn't be an issue. And it really wouldn't have affected 'Have at it, boys' -- essentially everyone understands that headhunting when you're dozens of laps down is over the line. But because they didn't do anything then, now they've had to punish him for something much, much closer to it.

-- Skip Key, Dallas, Tex.

I don't agree with what Skip says, but I understand his logic. On probation: Brad retribution is their biggest fear, so now they can give him a one-race suspension or worse if he pulls something. Of course, Kes has had a miserable season in Cup, so there's still really nothing to lose anyways if he wants to enact revenge.

I don't agree on the penalties, but I do think NASCAR is painted into a box now when comparing this Nationwide race at Gateway vs. Atlanta. Yes, there's building history involved, but everyone will always think the flip in March was the worst wreck we've seen in NASCAR, with the exception of maybe Talladega 2009. Why not a bigger penalty then if officials weren't happy?

Here is an easy-to-implement fix for the Chase.

Qualifiers must:

1. Finish in the top 12 in total points; and

2. Have at least one win in the first 26 races.

This would eliminate racers from being happy to have finished second or third. This way, they would try harder to win. Isn't that the point? Could mean that there are less than 12 in the Chase. That adds uncertainty, creating excitement and could also mean someone with a mid-season win (00) needs to put more effort into finishing well in order to move up in points. Good!

-- Darrell Robinson, North Plains, Ore.

Once again, I'm having a mega-mailbag the end of August that's all fans' suggestions on how to fix the Chase. But Darrell's suggestion works perfectly for what we have this year. The list of winless drivers inside the current top 12 includes some big names: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. Could you imagine the battles over the final six weeks if all of them needed to win to make the Chase? Bristol alone would be a bloodbath.

I still think the system's not perfect, though. It doesn't address the "zero advantage" given to the regular season points champion, and also leaves too many guys battling inside the playoffs. Unfortunately, Brian France isn't listening to me, because every idea I hear for fixing the Chase involves an expansion from 12 to 15 cars.

And finally...

To the guy from last week's mailbag (Ron Vallet) who said he won't renew his season tickets to Dover in 2011 because the races have been boring. I'll take those tickets!

-- Burgess, Kennedyville

Looks like we have a buyer for you, Ron! Proof positive next year's May Dover race won't have a 100 percent attendance decline.

"Hey, lady in the store on the cell phone, you might wanna stop yelling. I really didn't need to know the baby isn't your hubbys..." - @delanaharvick, point leader Kevin Harvick's wife

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