CONCORD, N.C. â€“ Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw nothing about Regan Smithâ€™s last-lap pass of Tony Stewart last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway that merited the penalty Smith received for passing below the yellow line.
Thatâ€™s because Earnhardt Jr. believes that Stewart, who moved down the track to protect the lead when Smith pulled to his inside in the trioval coming to the checkered flag, forced Smith out of bounds. If that were the case, Stewart â€“ not Smith â€“ would have been penalized because of NASCARâ€™s rule that states if a driver is forced below the yellow, the driver responsible for forcing him down there is the one at fault.
NASCAR didnâ€™t deem that to be the situation at Talladega and stripped Smith of what would have been the Dale Earnhardt Inc. driverâ€™s first Cup victory.
â€œIn my opinion, the 01 (Smith) was forced below the line,â€ Earnhardt Jr. said on Friday at Loweâ€™s Motor Speedway. â€œThe two did make contact â€“ (Smith) was on the inside of Tony and he had no choice other than to move away from Tony and that sends him below the line and in my opinion, the 01 wins the race. I feel like Tony did what he had to do. In the car, everyone would have done what Tony did, everyone would have done what the 01 did. Neither one of them were wrong or right.
â€œWhatâ€™s curious is when are you forced? Show me some video. I want to know whatâ€™s forced and whatâ€™s not. I felt like that was being forced.â€
Earnhardt Jr., a former DEI driver and five-time Talladega winner, doesnâ€™t know what Smith could have done differently once he and Stewart were side-by-side.
â€œ[Smith] canâ€™t sit there and hold his line,â€ said Earnhardt Jr., who left DEI at the end of 2007 to compete for Hendrick Motorsports. â€œHeâ€™s going to wreck Tony and probably wreck himself. Thatâ€™s ridiculous to expect someone to be that bull-headed about a situation like that and put everybody in jeopardy just to not be accused of passing below the line. I donâ€™t think he went down there â€“ he didnâ€™t pull down there and then go by Tony. He was forced down there. That wasnâ€™t his choice.â€
Unlike Smith and some other drivers who said after Talladega they thought there was a gray area in the rules that allowed a driver to pass below the yellow on the last lap or with the checkered flag in site, Earnhardt Jr. disagrees. He says NASCAR has been clear in stating that passing below the yellow is off limits at any time in the race. Where the gray area lies, according to Earnhardt Jr., is in what exactly constitutes being forced below the line.
â€œRegan was not going to the apron,â€ Earnhardt Jr. said. â€œHe was actually under the 20 car (Stewart) and passing the 20 car on the race track there for a split second when Tony came down and they actually touched and then he was forced on to the apron. â€¦ It was just really tough. Iâ€™m not complaining one bit, but Iâ€™ve always felt pretty good about everything theyâ€™ve done with that rule because itâ€™s a very tough rule to govern. Itâ€™s a very very difficult rule to govern because it takes a lot of criticism from the media off and on about it being a gray area.
â€œAnd it always will be a gray area until you put a wall there. But I donâ€™t understand how that wasnâ€™t being forced down.â€
Earnhardt Jr. can relate to Smith from personal experience. He remembers being in a position similar to Smith at Talladega in spring 2003 when he went out of bounds to pass Matt Kenseth for the lead with just over three laps to go. In that instance, NASCAR ruled that Earnhardt Jr. was forced below the yellow. He went on win the race.
â€œI was in the same situation â€¦ going into Turn 3 and I was forced below and I was declared OK,â€ Earnhardt Jr. said. â€œAnd it was exactly the same. It was exactly the same. I know for a fact that Regan didnâ€™t go down the front straightaway and plan to pass him on the apron.â€
Instead of being credited with the win, NASCAR scored Smith 18th in the final running order. And that, in Earnhardt Jr.â€™s view, was the worst part of the deal.
â€œHe crossed the finish line thinking he might have won the race and he ends up going home 18th, and he has got to climb on a plane to go home finishing 18th,â€ Earnhardt Jr. said. â€œAnd you can tell him all day long that everybody in the garage knows who won that race and this, that and the other and kind of make him feel better, but it donâ€™t help. Itâ€™s just tough.â€
*****from Jim Modlin, courtesy of scenedaily.com*****