NASCAR met today to review the weekend events at Darlington Raceway, and high on the agenda was the outbreak of words, shoves and even attempted punches that flew between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and their respective Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing crews.

NASCAR handed both drivers the same penalties: a $25,000 fine each, plus putting them both on a four-race probation. Harvick beat the official announcement with a tweet to the same effect: "4 weeks probation and $25,000 fine....I understand because of the car on pit road."

The penalties were indeed made under section 12-1 of the series rule book, which refers to "actions detrimental to stock car racing--involved in an altercation on pit road after the race". NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp explained further, saying the penalties were "about maintaining a safe environment on pit road." That means that the penalties are specifically related to what happened after the race, and not the on-track incident on lap 363 that was the original cause of the outbreak of hostilities.

The racing incident saw Harvick and Busch collide while side-by-side; Harvick dropped back, bumped the back of the #18 and got back alongside as the pair exited turn 4, with Clint Bowyer also taking the opportunity to dive down the inside of the pair of them to make it three-wide. As they compressed out of the turn, the three jostled and Bowyer was sent spinning into head-on contact with the inside wall; after the caution came out, Busch then moved down the track and tapped Harvick into a separate spin.

That apparent retaliation incensed Harvick, and after the race ended he stalked the #18 around the track, finally blocking him in pit road before climbing out of his car to storm over to his opponent's driver-side window to aim a punch at Busch. Busch responded by flooring the accelerator, which bumped the driverless #29 aside so that it rolled into a pit box wall where pit crews were working. No one was injured in the slow-speed accident, but it was clearly a dangerous moment, and it was this element that NASCAR felt needed addressing.

The probation period means that both Busch and Harvick will be closely watched at the Sprint Cup events at Dover, Charlotte, Kansas and ending with Pocono on June 15, as well as all other NASCAR events during that same time frame - including Nationwide races, Camping World Truck Series, and the All-Star event on May 21 in which both drivers are eligible to compete.

In NASCAR, "probation" typically means that the driver(s) concerned are under closer scrutiny than usual, that any incidents will be investigated in a "less forgiving manner" and any penalties that are handed down would be considerably harsher than usual in a similar first-time offence. However the precise nature and intricacies of probation have never been fully spelled out by NASCAR, despite promises to do so going back over three years. Generally speaking, many fans consider probation as a "so what?" slap on the wrist.

The penalties are consistent with others that have recently been handed down: Robby Gordon is on a year-long probation after he allegedly threw punches at Kevin Conway at Vegas in an argument over sponsors not paying up; Kyle Busch has already received a $25,000 penalty in November, 2010 after a row at Texas Motor Speedway ended with him giving the finger to a NASCAR official that was caught on live TV coverage; and Carl Edwards had been handed a three-race probation in the spring of 2010 for intentionally wrecking Brad Keselowski. In February, 2011, Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett was placed under probation for the rest of the year after being involved in a car accident while over the legal alcohol limit, with his car owner Rusty Wallace also imposing a "zero-tolerance, no alcohol at all" ban on Annett.

But other altercations have not been penalised, such as Gordon getting out and seeming to aim at least one punch at Jeff Gordon on the backstretch at Texas in 2010; Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick's post-race spat at Pocono, and Logano and Ryan Newman's similar encounter at Michigan also went unpenalised.

Tuesday's NASCAR meeting also looked into another outbreak of driver feuding, between Juan Montoya and Ryan Newman, that had been simmering since the previous week's race in Richmond. NASCAR decided no penalties were required here for either driver.

Montoya had been spun into the wall by Newman early in the race, and later retaliated by seeming to intentionally wreck Newman. After a war of words in the intervening days, both drivers were summoned to a peace meeting in the NASCAR trailer at Darlington but apparently with less than hoped-for results.

Some reports said that this meeting had itself descended into a physical altercation and quoted Montoya as saying "Newman hits like a girl", but with none of the participants talking publicly about what had happened, NASCAR preferred to leave the situation alone for the time being and simply said that the meeting didn't go as planned and that the matter would be discussed further.

"We made it clear to them in our meeting that this was their final warning and that we would be watching them closely and that enough is enough," said Tharp.

With no on-track problems between the two on Saturday night at Darlington, NASCAR seemed happy that the conflict was dying away of its own accord. "We believe they got the message loud and clear, raced hard but cleanly in Saturday night's race and will continue to do so moving forward."



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