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Good ol' smashing returns despite rules

So, this is the new NASCAR.

Safer.

More corporate.

More civilized.

Alas, gone are the days when a bunch of hotheaded adrenaline freaks swapped paint at nearly 200 mph, ran each other into the wall or cheated to win the Daytona 500.

Yes, NASCAR has changed.

Everyone says so.

Five years after iconic driver Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, the buzz around Speedweeks was that the Intimidator would hardly recognize today's NASCAR. Speculation was he wouldn't like it much, either.

Rules against aggressive driving? Penalties for swearing? Safety this, safety that?

NASCAR worked hard the past few years to distance itself from its moonshining origins, to expand beyond its backwoods southern roots into the mainstream. Cell phones replaced cigarettes, Bon Jovi replaced Brooks & Dunn and regulations replaced racin' deals.

Then the green flag waved.

And order was restored.

Yeehaw!

The 48th running of the Daytona 500 was a throwback to NASCAR's renegade days, proof that no matter how thick the sanctioning body's rulebook gets it cannot put a behavior template on 43 drivers competing in the sport's premier event.

Fenders rubbed and tempers flared.

Insults were hurled.

And that was just during the cautions.

Defending Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart wrecked at least two contenders, testing the threshold of NASCAR's new aggressive driving limit. Yep, he crossed it.

Feuds that supposedly had been settled were renewed and a few new ones were forged.

Oh, and the winner, Jimmie Johnson, celebrated without crew chief Chad Knaus, who was ejected last week for trying to hornswaggle NASCAR's technical inspectors during qualifying. Get this: It wasn't his first offense.

Who comes up with this stuff?

The only thing missing was the General Lee.

Barely more than a week ago, Stewart warned that someone would be killed at Daytona International Speedway if something wasn't done about reckless bump-drafting in the turns of the 2.5-mile track. As a result, NASCAR warned it would be on the lookout for not only bump-drafting, but anything it deemed overly aggressive for the conditions.

Then, Stewart ruined the chances of contenders Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth when he failed to yield to Gordon and careened into Kenseth for no apparent reason. With that, Stewart was the first to violate a cease-fire he initiated.

The second was Kenseth, who drew a penalty when he bumped Stewart in retaliation during a caution. Kenseth, incensed, refused to accept NASCAR's ruling.

In all, Stewart was penalized twice, for wrecking Kenseth and for leaving his pit stall with the jack stuck to the bottom of his No. 20 Chevrolet. Both times, Stewart was sent to the rear of the field. Both times, he got mad and bulled his way back to the front of the field.

The aerodynamics of racing are such that a hangnail can take a driver out of contention, but Stewart's battered car kept coming. Just like in the old days, when drivers routinely dismissed contact on the track as "one of them racin' deals" and kept going until the checkered flag.

When this race ended, Stewart was fifth, Kenseth 15th and Gordon 26th.

At least two were hopping mad.

"Tony took me out intentionally," Kenseth said. "No two ways about that."

Stewart said Kenseth hit him earlier in the race, knocking him sideways in Turn 2.

"He started the whole thing and I finished it," Stewart said.

Also, Stewart took offense with the driving style of 20-year-old Kyle Busch, calling him a "dart with no feathers." As in, he goes fast, but without direction.

Unlike the 1979 Daytona 500, in which Cale Yarborough came to blows with Bobby and Donnie Allison after they climbed out of wrecked race cars, no punches were thrown Sunday.

See? That's progress.

As for Johnson, his crew chief's habit of testing NASCAR's technical limits left Knaus to watch the No. 48 Chevrolet's biggest win on television. So far, there is no proof Knaus pirates his cable service, but it might be worth checking his wiring.

Johnson's tainted victory did not leave competitors with warm, fuzzy feelings. None called him an outright cheater, but they seemed to leave room for the possibility.

Third-place finisher Ryan Newman mentioned there have been inspection issues associated with several of Johnson's recent wins. That, he said, is bad for the sport.

Johnson, whose good-guy image is patterned after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, looked squarely into the television camera in Victory Lane and dedicated the victory to all the "48 haters."

Nice touch.

It took a while, but Johnson's car passed post-race inspection, making the victory official. And so ended another eventful day on the high banks at Daytona.

All in all, a (bleep) of a race.

Somewhere, Earnhardt was smirking.

Up next:OBITUARIES

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