Dale Earnhardt Jr was hit with a NASCAR-imposed penalty on Wednesday for intentionally causing a caution condition during Sunday's Sharpie 500 Nextel Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Junior admitted it after the race, saying he needed a caution so he could pit to change a loose wheel, and was fined $10,000 and put on probation until 1 June 2004. But the stiffest part of the penalty was the loss of 25 championship points, both to Little E and to his DEI team.

NASCAR president Mike Helton said that '[NASCAR] has several rules in our rule book that have been in place for quite some time to prevent someone from altering the outcome of an event. Actions such as this will not be tolerated. We will always react to protect the integrity of our sport'.

NASCAR has a policy of releasing unofficial results after a race, with the official results issued the Monday after the weekend. Penalties, if any, were announced on Tuesday. However, because of the increase in the number of penalties - in inverse proportion to the size of the fields - an extra day will be needed for behaviour and infraction review. Now 'Penalty Box Day' is Wednesday. This will also allow sufficient time to tally the results of the Internet fan voting on which drivers should be penalised.

NASCAR will be joining the ever-increasing number of organisations holding annual awards shows. Starting with the 2005 SpeedWeeks, NASCAR will hold the First Annual NASCAR Fan Choice Awards at Daytona USA, to be simultaneously televised live on Spike TV and Lifetime cable channels. The five-hour show will be sponsored by Nigerian EMail.

Among the Award Categories, both objective and subjective, are 'most expressive hand signals', 'bleepingest driver', 'most colourful driver language', 'most column inches in a tabloid', 'driver who runs for the most teams', 'team which runs the most drivers', 'team with the most personnel changes', 'longest term of NASCAR probation', 'worst criminal record', 'most points lost', 'largest fine' and 'driver completing the fewest laps'. Joe Ruttman appears to leading the latter category in Nextel Cup, although Phil Bonifeld is a close second in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Grand-Am Road Racing Championship, based at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, will further strengthen its stock car ties. Effective with the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Daytona 500 - both of which are part of Daytona SpeedWeeks - the series will run together at selected race venues. This will further increase the cross-pollination between the disciplines. Even more NASCAR drivers will be expected to run in the annual sportscar endurance race, including Johnny Benson, Mark Martin - who has already run the Rolex - Casey Mears, Ryan Newman, Jimmy Spencer and Ken Schrader, who has a few weekends left to fill on his 52-weekend calendar.

Conversely, more of the road racers will run stock cars. Among the first Busch Series teams expected to announce will be Dyson/Doran Racing, with a six-car team. The drivers will be Ron Fellows (Bully Hill Wine Chevrolet), Elliott Forbes-Robinson (Yellowtail Wine Dodge), Butch Leitzinger (Hickory Farms Cheese Ford), Max Papis (Ruffino Chianti Dodge), Boris Said (Two Buck Chuck Ford) and Jimmy Vasser (Monterrey Jack Cheese Chevrolet).

Starting with the Brickyard 400 race, NASCAR will reduce the size of the fields in Nextel Cup to 33 cars, in line with the size of the Indianapolis 500 field, both of which are run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In an unusual show of unanimity, the Formula One Constructors Association voted on Tuesday to change the Formula One starting procedures, effective this weekend at the inaugural Sand Grand Prix in Bahrain. The qualifying order will still determine the grid for the F1 races, but in reverse order. This will provide for some overtaking opportunities in the race, as world champion Michael Schumacher works his way through the field to win.

Schumacher's publicist has put the Formula One media on notice that he could be holding an informal press conference on Sunday after the podium ceremonies. While no reason has been given, it is expected that, if Schumacher again wins from the pole, he will take an immediate sabbatical to allow other F1 drivers and teams an opportunity to catch up with him and Ferrari. Schumacher will monitor the situation and rejoin the championship later in the season - when either Juan Pablo Montoya and/or Kimi Raikkonen have caught up to him!

In the meantime, Schumacher will keep busy by running other motorsports events, including the Cyprus World Rally Championship and Indianapolis 500 in May, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. The rumours have already started a feeding frenzy both here and abroad, with many teams making offers to the F1 ace to join them for their events.

If the F1 standings aren't equalised by July, Schumacher also plans on the 88th Pikes Peak Hill Climb. He is especially interested in this year's hillclimb because, in order to increase declining attendance and TV ratings, the promoters are running the route from top to bottom.

Champ Car World Series spokesman Paul Gentilozzi made a surprise announcement on Wednesday when, at the end of its weekly media teleconference, he told of another change for the 2004 season, which has yet to begin. After the surprise welcome reception for the suggested Formula Libre race format at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach - first mentioned in this column - 'The Three Amigos' decided to go one further and adopt the format not just for LBGP, but for the 2004 season...if the field survives the season's opener street race.

The melding of the Champ Cars. Toyota Atlantic and the large SCCA Spec Renault Series should produce an exciting race as well as meeting the promoter's requirement an ample field. And to further ensure interest, the race will see the return of the standing start.

Originally, the MotoRock Trans-Am Series was to be part of the Formula Libre format, but Champ Car officials wanted to keep the race 'pure' and eliminated tin-tops.

The Trans-Am Series will guarantee the largest-ever starting grids for its 38th continuous season by adding the 80-driver Historic Trans-Am Group.

'The Big Boys Are Back' will see several Trans-Am regulars race HTAG cars, including Tomy Drissi (1967 Chevrolet Camaro raced by Dick Guilstrand), Johnny Miller (1969 Chevrolet Camaro, formerly raced by Bob Fryer, Paul Hecker and Frank Herchick) and Juan Gonzalez (1971 AMC Javelin raced by George Follmer in his 1972 championship season).

But the biggest surprise is that Follmer, who had gotten bored with retirement in Idaho, will himself return to the series, racing another one of his '72 Javelins, currently owned and raced by Ken Epsman.

The International Race of Champions is acknowledging that the series has never been a worldwide one and, starting with the 2005 season, it will be known as the USROC - or United States Race of Champions - and invite the champions of all major American race series. The expected field of more than 20 cars will run in identical Toyotas, which is on the fast track towards its goal to be involved in every major domestic race series by 2010.



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