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NASCAR's unpredictable season rolls on with Twitter-gate, more

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina -- After all the tumultuous happenings in NASCAR in the past week, one can only wonder "What can happen next?"

One thing that has become predictable in NASCAR lately is its unpredictability. But in a world of 140-character life updates ranging from trips to Subway to critiques about NASCAR, the biggest lesson that has to be learned is "Be careful what you Tweet."

Just ask Denny Hamlin, who was handed a $50,000 fine for making disparaging comments about NASCAR.

While this has led to a slew of charges that NASCAR is operating with a cloak of secrecy, the sanctioning body has made great strides since the 1970s and 1980s when penalties and rules application were largely done behind closed doors.

But are these types of fines really all that unprecedented? Not at all. Protecting the product is just as important to NASCAR as it is to the NBA. There doesn't seem to be much uproar when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gets fined for criticizing the officials, but there is when Hamlin and Ryan Newman get nailed for criticizing NASCAR.

But "Twitter-gate" isn't the only bit of unpredictability being injected, intentionally or otherwise, into racing lately.

Consider that in the last week Chip Ganassi achieves racing's "Triple Crown," becoming the first team owner to win the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season, Helio Castroneves' temper tantrum becomes racing's YouTube clip of the week, Jack Roush is injured in a plane crash and NASCAR is flirting with a major schedule shakeup for next season. Just think that all of this happened before engines were even revved at Pocono.

NASCAR news isn't just playing itself out on the tracks come the weekend, but all-week long.

So, as NASCAR prepares to head to Watkins Glen International for the second and final road course race of the season, what changes can fans expect?

Your guess is as good as mine. That's the unpredictability of this sport. In weeks where the focus should be on the drivers trying to make The Chase or on which drivers are hot and which are not, the unpredictable nature of NASCAR continues to surprise and steer attention toward secondary storylines.

NASCAR used to take pride in its racing. The legendary names of the sport would go out and battle on the weekend and the fans would talk about it throughout the week in eager anticipation of the next battle. Today, fans are left to wonder if the 2011 season will end at Homestead, Fla., or Las Vegas? Or whether a race will be taken from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and moved to Kentucky Speedway?

Are schedule changes necessary? Yes.

Now that Kentucky Speedway is part of Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated group of facilities, one of the SMI dates at New Hampshire or Atlanta will be moved to give a date to the track on the banks of the Ohio River. And ending the season at Las Vegas will be a more fitting locale.

And possible changes don't end at next year's schedule, as ideas about a new Chase format are being floated around as well.

But that's the nature of a sport in constant flux: there is never a guarantee that today's schedule, today's hardware, today's racing will be what fans can expect tomorrow. As one NASCAR executive put it "just wait until Monday. Something always happens."

When Helio Castroneves had an apparent victory taken from him when IndyCar officials ruled he chose the wrong lane and effectively blocked Penske teammate Will Power at Edmonton on July 25, his outburst was legendary. Castroneves' temper tantrum was one of the most replayed sports highlights of the weekend, overshadowing NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray "kissing the bricks" after winning the Brickyard 400 the same day.

But I Hope Castroneves got his money's worth because on Monday he was handed a $60,000 fine and placed on probation for the remainder of the season.

"I fully support the decisions of chief steward Brian Barnhart and Race Control," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. "The drivers have been aware of the blocking rule for quite some time. Brian reminded the drivers of the blocking rule in the Edmonton pre-race drivers' meeting, which serves as the first warning, and the rule was executed during the race just as it dictates.

"This sport is so close and competitive that emotions are always on display. However, that does not justify the post-race conduct of Helio toward series officials."

Castroneves appeared to be on his way to Victory Lane before a late restart with three laps to go saw the driver choose the inside lane on the temporary street course. This is where the confusion among fans and media developed over the blocking rule.

According to IndyCar rules, the inside lane is the "passing" lane. Castroneves was supposed to restart the race on the outside lane to give Power a chance at racing him into the first corner. When Castroneves clearly took the inside lane, he was black-flagged but never came into the pits for a "drive-through" penalty. So the was penalized 20 seconds and placed at the end of the lead lap.

"This rule is unique to IndyCar racing," Barnhart said. "It was put in place to protect our competitors, officials and fans, prevent unnecessary damage to these cars and allow for more passing opportunities. Bad things happen when these cars touch and there have been serious incidents with major consequences on temporary circuits throughout Indy car history. With the new wheel interlocking prevention technology that is coming in our 2012 car, we will be re-evaluating this rule in the future."

Outraged, Castroneves charged technical director Kevin Blanch and later director of security Charles Burns, placing his hands on both. And that is where he stepped over the line and now has to pay the price.

Expect to see a much mellower Castroneves at this weekend's race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. And while he was embarrassed at his actions, Helio garnered a level of attention that could actually be beneficial.

After all, there is no such thing as "bad publicity" when it comes to sports and in IndyCar's case, any publicity is "good publicity."

Once teammates at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had a fierce moment in Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix when Barrichello claims the seven-time Formula One World champion nearly ran him into a concrete wall at 186 mph. Schumacher will be penalized 10 positions on the starting grid for the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August.

"After I watched the incident with Rubens again, I must say that the stewards were right with their assessment; the maneuver against him was too hard," Schumacher said. "I wanted to make it hard for him to pass... I wasn't trying to endanger him with my move. If he felt I was, then I'm sorry. This was not my intention."

Barrichello did not like being put in that position by his former teammate.

"I like a fair fight but that wasn't fair here," Barrichello said. "If Michael wants to go to heaven - in the event that he is going to heaven - then I don't really care. But I don't want to go before him."

The move was so bad that Eddie Jordan, who was his team boss that day and is now a BBC commentator, said it has damaged Schumacher's reputation.

"It was horrific," Jordan said. "Not only did he (Barrichello) just miss the wall, he (Schumacher) pushed him right across the pit-lane exit.

"His legacy is damaged as a result of this, in my opinion."

"He was Jack. 'Don't mess anything up. Don't wreck.' 'I hope I don't break any parts for you and I'll see you soon.' He was excited for the race today. I could hear it in his voice. He's been through a lot this last week. He needed a race today. I wish he could be here, but he really needed that victory. That's pretty cool. I'm sure he is very hard to handle for all those nurses right now in the hospital." -- NASCAR driver Carl Edwards on talking to his team owner, Jack Roush, on the telephone before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway.

It's time to hit the road for NASCAR and IndyCar as both head to road courses this Sunday. NASCAR is off to historic Watkins Glen International, a track where the drivers that excel in road racing will make a difference. This could also be the race where Jeff Gordon ends the longest winless streak of his career or where Tony Stewart finds his way back to Victory Lane. But, keep an eye on Australia's Marcos Ambrose, who should have won the season's first road course contest at Infineon Raceway in June. I'll be off to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in lovely Steam Corners, Ohio. This is a truly unique experience because the course is carved out of Ohio cornfields and farmland. A weekend at Mid-Ohio is like going to Boy Scout camp. I wonder if they give a "Merit Badge" for column writing. Nah, better learn how to build a campfire, first.

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