DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It began with crunched fenders, harsh words, and maybe even a punch in the face. But the final result was just a slap on the wrist from NASCAR: a six-race probation for Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.
Heading into Sunday's Daytona 500, it's beginning to look like NASCAR officials were serious when they said they will cut drivers some slack on their bad behavior this year.
"We're still working into letting the drivers develop and vent in proper ways, but we're giving them some more latitude," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said yesterday. "We said in the offseason we would do that and I think this is another step to letting you know what we mean."
The punishments to Stewart and Busch stem from a confrontation between the two former series champions, who wrecked in practice last week and then carried it into the NASCAR officials' trailer.
While nobody involved in the incident would confirm that Stewart actually punched Busch during the first of their two meetings with officials, as is widely believed, Pemberton inferred that Busch's penalty was for what happened on the track and Stewart's was for what happened afterward.
"The accident was a racing incident," Pemberton said. "How they conducted themselves after that, after the accident and coming onto pit road and from there through the rest of the evening is why the penalties were equal." Equally light, that is.
However, in granting Busch and Stewart some leniency for their dustup, officials also made it known that the term "probation" will mean more this year than it has in the past.
Probation has been a murky issue for NASCAR, as officials haven't necessarily punished a driver more harshly if he misbehaves while on probation. NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said that will change.
"We're starting the season by putting them on probation and we're also going to redefine what probation means," Hunter said. "And they clearly understand it."
With that in mind, Pemberton said Stewart and Busch need to give each other some room on the track - but that doesn't mean they can't race each other hard.
"They need to be able to race each other in tight situations, bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door," Pemberton said.
"That's a part of the fabric of this sport - the fine line between drivers showing their emotion and being themselves and NASCAR trying to police the sport," Hunter said.