By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s been an action-packed week for Tony Stewart following his return to a race car after a back injury sidelined him the first eight races of the season.
Upon his return, he was promptly fined $35,000 by NASCAR for criticizing the series about safety surrounding lug nuts. He then ran his first race since November, then participated in the final tire test of his career over two days this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Now he’s scheduled for a short weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where Ty Dillon will be his relief driver to help Stewart avoid hurting his back again.
But all the talk Friday was about his fine, which wasn’t lifted even after NASCAR heeded to concerns.
Stewart said he still doesn’t understand what he said to warrant the penalty.
“You hate to have to pay $35,000 to get someone’s attention, but apparently that’s what it took,” Stewart said. “I’ve got questions, too, that I’d like to have answers to. I’m still wondering why I’m paying a $35,000 fine for something that got changed three days later.”
NASCAR last season stopped policing how many lug nuts teams were using and it evolved into many crews using less than the standard five. It led to a rash of loose wheels, and several drivers and crew chiefs were critical of the safety aspects.
But it wasn’t until Stewart spoke up that NASCAR snapped to attention. He was the only one fined.
On Monday of this week, NASCAR said it will check tires before and after the race for all five lug nuts.
“The crazy part was I wasn’t the first person that brought it up, I was down the food chain of guys that had already discussed it and talked about it,” he said. “I talked about it and got my hand slapped. Obviously, it was the way that I talked about it, which I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I said or what the word or the phrase was that got me in trouble. When it comes to something like that that is a safety issue, fine or not, I think you’ve got to speak your mind and you’ve got to be honest about it.
“I hope this doesn’t discourage drivers for standing up for what they believe and what they think is right for everybody.”
The fine caught the attention of the Sprint Cup Drivers Council, which said it would pay Stewart’s fine. Stewart is one of the nine drivers on the council, but didn’t learn the other eight planned to pay his fine until after it was decided.
He said he didn’t want them to pay his fine, and it was decided the money they pledged would instead go to Autism Delaware.
“We did it collectively as a group and that’s something I’m really proud of with this Driver Council, is how the drivers are united about everything we’re doing,” Stewart said. “This was the first time that something had happened where somebody in the Council got a penalty for speaking an opinion. For them to show that kind of support and show we’re all one unit, that’s something you don’t normally see and haven’t seen in this sport.”
Stewart only plans to race Sunday until the first caution, and then he’ll give his seat up to Dillon. Stewart crashed an all-terrain vehicle the week before the season opened and ruptured a vertebra that caused him to miss the first eight races of his final season in NASCAR. He’s retiring at the end of the year.
Dillon shared the No. 14 Chevrolet with Brian Vickers while Stewart was sidelined, and Stewart will drive Sunday with Dillon’s seat to make it a seamless driver change.
“I can’t thank Stewart-Haas and their organization enough for giving me the opportunity to fill in this year,” Dillon said. “Not only has it helped me with my career and getting better as race car driver, but it’s helped me show people that I can get the job done.
“I feel like I’m ready to be in the (Cup) series full-time as a driver, mentally and physically.”
NASCAR has already said that if Dillon wins on Sunday, it would count toward Stewart’s attempt to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Dillon didn’t care if Stewart would be credited with the win.
“First of all, it would mean I won a Sprint Cup race,” he said. “On top of that, to be able to get Tony a step closer to be locked into the Chase would be really cool. If it all comes together and we do win the race, I’m sure it will be a heck of a party and everybody is going to be happy.”
Stewart wasn’t so sure he agreed with NASCAR’s ruling, even though he needs a win and has to climb into the top-30 in points to make it into the Chase.
“I don’t think I will feel good about it if I were to get a spot that way,” Stewart said. “I know I wouldn’t feel good about it. I think for me to make the Chase, it needs to be because I ran the whole race and won the race. Not started it and somebody else won it for me.”