By JIM PEDLEY The Kansas City Star
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be in first place in the Nextel Cup standings when the series arrives at Kansas Speedway this weekend.
He was penalized 25 driver points and fined $10,000 by NASCAR Tuesday for using profanities during a television interview in victory lane after Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway.
As a result, he is now in second place in the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship, 12 points behind Kurt Busch. Had he not been penalized, he would have entered Sunday's Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway 13 points ahead of Busch.
The penalty didn't surprise many of his peers.
Several fellow drivers said that Earnhardt knew the rules concerning use of profanity and that they were expecting NASCAR's decision to penalize him.
The trouble started a few minutes after Earnhardt won Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega. In the midst of the celebration, he was interviewed live, and during the interview he let fly with a four-letter word.
NASCAR has a policy against that.
And NASCAR already had a precedent for punishing drivers who didn't watch their words. When Busch series driver Johnny Sauter was captured swearing on television earlier this year, NASCAR fined him $10,000 and hit him with a 25-point penalty.
Richie Gilmore, the director of competition for Dale Earnhardt Inc., said the penalty was potentially “devastating.”
“This is a huge setback for the entire company,” Gilmore said. “We're in a sport that focuses its primary attention on the final 10 races of the season and we're racing against formidable teams for a championship. We're facing a setback from a competition standpoint for something that should be considered a personal foul.”
Gilmore said the penalty would be appealed.
Fellow drivers, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Earnhardt knows the rules.
“It's his own fault,” rookie Brendan Gaughan said.
He said that drivers have responsibilities to fans to keep it clean.
“I have a 5 1/2 -year-old niece and a 6-month-old nephew and a bunch in between,” Gaughan said. “They're watching their uncle Brendan race every Sunday. After the race, we've got to be somewhat in check.”
Carl Edwards, who drives in the Nextel Cup and the Craftsman Truck series, said drivers need to be aware of their surroundings and their words.
“It's something,” he said of guarding his words, “that I've tried really hard, just like all the drivers, you know, I've tried really hard to be aware of just from the very beginning, even racing at the local level, that you always have a wide variety of people watching.”
Gilmore said he thought that the context and situation of Earnhardt's gaffe should have been considered by NASCAR in handing out punishment. He reiterated Earnhardt's contention that the cursing came during a celebration, not during an angry discourse, as had Sauter's.
“The popularity of this sport is based on colorful personalities and the fact that everyone can relate to these drivers and the emotions,” Gilmore said. “Now, it seems like that's a detriment.”
Driver Jimmie Johnson said it's a shame that Earnhardt lost his points lead. But, he said, NASCAR had no choice in docking the popular driver.
“With the precedent they set earlier in the year, they weren't left an option in my opinion,” Johnson said.
Maybe the person most sympathetic to Earnhardt's plight was Busch.
“It's unfortunate,” Busch said. “The emotions in victory lane overcame him. He was the dominant car all day and deserved to win. We want to beat him on the race track.”
Deserved or not, the penalty will apparently serve as a deterrent to others.
“It sent a message to the rest of us, that's for sure,” driver Jimmie Johnson said. “I don't think you'll ever hear another four-letter word again.”