The commander

Cathy Elliott

The only thing I like better than the fact that Tony Stewart has returned to fulltime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) competition is the fact that Tony Stewart has returned, and opened his mouth. Generally, when this occurs, we're in for a good show, and this time was no different.

Since injuring his back in an ATV accident during the off-season, Stewart has been participating in NASCAR events the way the rest of do: watching. If you personally think that sounds like a dream come true, let's try a new perspective, enter the world of extreme fantasy for a moment, and imagine the following things happen.

First, you love your job so much that you would literally rather work than eat, sleep, listen to the Purple Rain album for 24 hours straight (RIP, Prince) or go on an all-expense-paid, month-long vacation to the destination of your choice.

Second, you are inarguably one of the very best in the world at your job, but are deprived of the ability to perform it and are relegated to the sidelines, armchair crew-chiefing, grinding your teeth, watching talented ? but not brilliant ? drivers warm your seat, and saying a lot of stuff your mother definitely would not approve of.

Third, your physical inability to do your job has obviously affected your productivity, making it exponentially more difficult for you to be named Employee of the Year in 2016.

For the past four months, Tony Stewart's life has been something like that.

But over the past couple of weeks, things have been looking up. In an ongoing effort to reinforce the idea that NASCAR is not, in fact, an implacable sledgehammer of frontier justice, but rather a benevolent arbiter of fairness and understanding, Stewart was granted a waiver making him eligible to qualify for the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

All he basically needs to do is win a race and accumulate enough points to climb his way into the top 30 in driver standings. Not easy, but not impossible, either. Kyle Busch, remember, was in a similar situation last season and managed to come back and win the whole enchilada. NASCAR deserves kudos for this particular decision, which now seems to have morphed into an actual policy.

"Smoke" talked with the media during the early part of his comeback week, and when asked for his opinion about some of the 2016 season's goings-on, he responded "forthrightly," because that's just what he does.

You've probably heard about this, but it has become somewhat of a regular occurrence on for teams to choose not to tighten every one of the five lug nuts on a competition tire during pit stops. NASCAR used to have officials in the pit boxes to make sure things that needed tightening actually got tightened, but they have done away with that policy this year.

It takes less time to tighten three lug nuts than to tighten five; even I can do that math. Fewer tightening means fewer seconds spent in the pits, which is good, but it can also mean loose wheels, which is the opposite of good, especially during a high-speed stock car race.

"I'm beyond mad; I'm P.O.'d at NASCAR about it," Stewart said. "For all the work and ? all the new stuff we have to do to superspeedway cars and all these other things they want us to do for safety, we can't even make sure we put five lug nuts on the wheel. This is not a game you play with safety and that's exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.

"When you preach about safety, why would you sit there and have cars that are running 200 mph at the end of the straightaway that don't have all the lug nuts on the wheel that should be on it? If they want to design a new hub that has three lug nuts or one lug nut, that's fine. But make sure it's safe and make sure it's the same for everybody. We shouldn't be playing games with safety to win races," he continued.

My reaction? Well, duh.

NASCAR's reaction? A $35,000 fine levied against Stewart for violating the sanctioning body's new "behavioral policy." Yep, the hammer came down ? but this time, perhaps it did not have the desired effect.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a drivers' council, a group of competitors that meets with NASCAR periodically to discuss this and that. I like to envision these interactions as being like cordial status meetings with your boss, where you make suggestions and she pretends to think they're good ones, and then everyone high fives and goes on with their day, no harm, no foul.

In this situation, however, the drivers' council decided to get proactive, and released this statement, via Denny Hamlin.

"We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner. While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine."

Good for them. A group of nails probably can't stand for very long against a hammer, but it will take a whole lot more effort to beat them down.

Maybe "Smoke" will be adding another cool nickname to his resume: SPIKE.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at