NASCAR fines Tony Stewart $35,000 for criticizing officials

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR fined Tony Stewart $35,000 on Thursday after he criticized the series about a potential safety hazard during races.

The fine falls under NASCAR's new behavioral policy and came one day after the three-time champion warned that a driver is going to get hurt if the series doesn't start policing pit stops for missing lug nuts.

''I'm beyond mad, I'm P.O.'d at NASCAR about it,'' he said Wednesday. ''For all the work and everything all the bulletins and all the new stuff we have to do to superspeedway cars and all these other things they want us to do for safety, we can't even make sure we put five lug nuts on the wheel. This is not a game you play with safety and that's exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.''

NASCAR chairman Brian France said Stewart is ''wrong'' and the series takes pride in its push for safety.

''I would say this nobody has led, done more and achieved more in safety than we have. It is a never-ending assignment and we accept that,'' France said Thursday during a meeting of the Associated Press Sports Editors in New York. ''We do take offense that anything we do is somehow leading toward an unsafe environment. Safety ... that's the most important thing we have to achieve.''

The fine came on the same day Stewart announced he will return to competition this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. He has missed the first eight races of the year with a back injury he suffered right before the start of the season in an all-terrain vehicle crash.

NASCAR stopped officiating missing lug nuts last year. There's been a rash of loose wheels the last two races because some teams are not applying the maximum five lug nuts during pit stops. By skipping one or more, a team can have a faster stop and gain better track position.

But loose wheels can create accidents or cause a tire to fall off a car, and Stewart called on NASCAR to put an end to the practice.

Stewart said it's a safety hazard as more teams are skipping lug nuts.

''It's however many you think you can get away with,'' Stewart said. ''So we're putting the drivers in jeopardy to get track position. It's not bit anybody yet, but I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt.

''When you preach about safety, why would you sit there and have cars that are running 200 mph at the end of the straightaway that don't have all the lug nuts on the wheel that should be on it? If they want to design a new hub that has three lug nuts or one lug nut, that's fine. But make sure it's safe and make sure it's the same for everybody. We shouldn't be playing games with safety to win races.''

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AP Sports Writer Ralph Russo contributed to this report in New York.

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