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For Earnhardt, curse proves costly in more than one way

A slip of the tongue on TV cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. first place and $10,000, penalties imposed by an increasingly image-conscious NASCAR.

Earnhardt was docked 25 points yesterday in the Nextel Cup standings for using a vulgarity in an NBC interview after his victory at Talladega Superspeedway, dropping him to second place with seven races left in the season. He will appeal the points penalty.

Earnhardt still gets credit for the 14th victory of his career Sunday, and he has plenty of time to make up the deficit on new leader Kurt Busch, with up to 190 points available at each race.

Nonetheless, the punishment was criticized by Earnhardt's team as too harsh, and it served as another example of how NASCAR is trying to shed its image as a sport that traces its roots to Good Ol' Boys running moonshine through the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas.

"The popularity of this sport is based on colorful personalities," said Richie Gilmore, director of competition for Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Now it seems like that's a detriment."

Enjoying tremendous growth in mainstream popularity lately, the racing league landed a $2.8 billion television contract with NBC and Fox that began in 2001, and this season switched the sponsorship of its top division from cigarette-maker R.J. Reynolds' Winston brand to telecommunications giant Nextel.

As part of the whole scrubbing-up process NASCAR president Mike Helton told drivers in February to watch their language on radio and television. Less than a month later, he showed he meant it: Johnny Sauter lost 25 points for swearing during a radio interview after a Busch Series race in Las Vegas.

"Helton made it clear . . . that we, as a family sport, were taking this very seriously and adhering to FCC guidelines," NASCAR spokesman Mike Zizzo said. "The timing is unfortunate for Dale Jr., but NASCAR also made it clear to the competitors that we would police the last 10 races just like we did the first 26."

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