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NASCAR sticks by get-tough stance

NASCAR officials listened when Tony Stewart stood next to his car after the Bud Shootout on Feb. 12 and warned of impending doom if something wasn't done to curb the aggressive driving on one of the circuit's wildest tracks.

All week long they warned of penalties, spoke in meetings about drivers "policing themselves" and even painted bright orange marks on the track to let drivers know where the "no bump zones" were.

They got the chance Sunday to prove they weren't kidding. And Stewart was a major player in several of their decisions.

Besides the normal penalties for speeding on pit road and stopping outside the pit box, NASCAR threw the black flag twice Sunday. In the crosshairs were reigning rookie of the year Kyle Busch and former champion Matt Kenseth, who provoked them enough to force officials to stop scoring him until he served his drive-through penalty.

Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion, was sent to the back of the longest line twice: once for running over equipment in his pit box and the other for swerving down and spinning out Kenseth. After a week in which drivers and fans wondered how hard the aggressive-driving rules were going to be enforced, NASCAR answered in a loud way.

"I'm just really disappointed," Kenseth said. "I thought (NASCAR president) Mike Heltondid a great job all week explaining it in the drivers' meeting that it was about aggressive driving and not necessarily bump drafting. Tony took me out intentionally."

Stewart defended himself in the Kenseth incident, saying he thought he was clear and moving down in front of him. He was not so diplomatic when it came to Busch.

"Kyle Busch, he's the one guy that's probably going to hurt somebody out here," Stewart said. "He's all over the place. He's what we like to call a dart with no feathers. He just doesn't know where he's going."

The penalties provided a profound effect on the outcome as Busch and Kenseth - both of whom led at least one lap and rode in or near the top 10 most the day - were relegated to final positions outside the top 10. Kenseth was 10th; Busch 23rd.

"It's not that there were some (penalties called) that were or were not necessary," Busch said. "It's just that they are judgment calls that may or may not need to be made and they made them. We just have to go on. We finished where we finished."

JUNIOR LEAGUE: The first step in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rebound from last season's 19th-place points finish was Sunday's race. And it was a good one.

He led a race-high 32 laps, taking the point seven times. He collected $10,000 for leading at the halfway point, finished eighth and heads to California sixth in the standings.

It appeared he might have a shot at winning but, while running in fifth, he pulled out of line and couldn't find anyone to draft with him. That move sent him back three spots. But overall, it was a strong showing for a driver who led the most laps in just one race all of last season.

"I can live with myself knowing I at least tried to win rather than stay in line," Earnhardt said. "We're real happy to come out of here with a top 10."

TOP NEWCOMER: Clint Bowyerwatched Earnhardt pull out of line and happily slid up to fill his spot with three laps to go. The result was a sixth-place finish and the lead in the rookie of the year points race.

"That's exactly what we needed to do," Bowyer said. "Come here and get a strong finish."

UNLUCKY: It was a long day for the defending 500 champion.

Though Jeff Gordon started on the outside of the front row, he finished 26th, mostly because of two crashes that damaged his car.

In the first crash, Gordon was clipped on Lap 107 by Stewart and sent into the wall. His car sustained serious damage on the front right side, much of which was fixed by heavy doses of tape.

Gordon raced toward the middle of the pack, but his day was derailed again on Lap 188 when he was caught up in a wreck caused by Busch. Gordon responded by pitting and taking four fresh tires, climbing from 34th place to 26th.

"It was a long day for us," said Gordon, who said his car was probably good enough to finish in the top 10. "I'm real proud of the fight we gave."

EARLY EXIT: As his crew worked on his car in the garage, Carl Edwards climbed to the roof of a hauler and spoke face to face with Richard Petty.

Edwards wanted to clarify what happened during a wreck in which he drove up onto Kyle Petty's car and apologize to Petty's father for his part in it.

When Jeff Green hit the wall and fell to the bottom of the track on Lap 79, Edwards tried to drive through the trouble. Instead, he smashed into Petty's car as it attempted to avoid the wreck.

Green's crash also affected Martin Truex, J.J. Yeley and Dale Jarrett.

"I just have to apologize to Petty Enterprises and everybody on the 45 car," Edwards said. "It is a terrible day."

Kyle Petty said he understood what happened. With so many cars running so close, one car hitting the wall was bound to cause a chain reaction.

NO SPONSOR, NO PROBLEM: Kirk Shelmerdine may have had the blackest car on the track, but only because he didn't have a bunch of sponsor stickers to cover up his paint job.

As the only sponsorless car in the race, Shelmerdine and his shell of a crew faced tough odds just being one of 58 cars trying to qualify, much less complete the race. He might not have had the strongest car, but he provided one of the best feel-good stories when he finished in the top 20.

"We couldn't keep up with the other cars, but I guess we beat all the wrecked ones," said Shelmerdine, who relied on funding from friends and picked up contributions from other teams to piece together his ride.

For his efforts, Shelmerdine won $272,008, by far the biggest payday of his career.


Times staff writers, and MIKE READLING,

Times correspondent