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All eyes on NASCAR's new safety rules at Bristol

Denny Hamlin (11) is assisted by emergency personnel

Denny Hamlin (11) is assisted by emergency personnel after being wrecked by Kevin Harvick during a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Bristol, Tenn. Credit: AP

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Of all the photo enlargements in the Bristol Motor Speedway hospitality tower hallways, the most eye-catching one might be Ward Burton slinging his shoe heat shields at Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Or, rather, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car.

It was 2002, and the normally laid-back Burton had just been spun out by Junior. Burton charged up the track banking and fired away from just a couple of feet away while Earnhardt’s car passed him under caution.

Those kinds of flare-ups used to be fun YouTube fodder for fans and a useful marketing tool for NASCAR, maintaining the sport’s gritty image even as it surged past its backcountry roots.  

But that changed Aug. 9, when a car Tony Stewart was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, N.Y. Ward had exited his car to confront Stewart over contact that sent Ward’s car into the wall.

Stewart wasn’t behind the wheel for the third straight week in a Sprint Cup event -- Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol -- as he goes through the grieving process and awaits word of a police investigation into the incident.

Jeff Burton once again drove in his place -- declaring “I’m driving Tony’s Stewart’s Bass Pro Shops Chevy tonight” in support of Stewart as part of the drivers announcing their own entrances before getting into their cars.

But Stewart’s presence was at Bristol in a much more tangible way -- new safety protocol for drivers who are involved in wrecks. And while the rule was put in place in time for last week’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan, its enforcement was more likely to be tested at Bristol. The half-mile track is so known for aggressive driving that it bills itself as “The Last Great Colosseum,” and famed boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer was on hand as grand marshal to offer his “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Basically, the new rule prohibits a driver from doing anything like what Ward Burton did. A wrecked driver who is stopped on the track must stay in his or her car and not remove any safety equipment until safety crews or NASCAR officials arrive and direct them to do so. There are exceptions, such as the car being on fire. (At Michigan, Kyle Larson’s car caught on fire after hitting the wall, and although there was no immediate danger of the fire entering the cockpit, he was able to exit the car immediately with no concern for being penalized.)

Saturday, the new rule's enforcement was in question after Kevin Harvick clipped Denny Hamlin and sent him into the wall while the two sparred for the lead on lap 162. Hamlin’s car was subsequently plowed into by Earnhardt and came to a stop near the bottom of the entrance of Turn 3.

Hamlin waited until safety personnel arrived to exit the car. But moments later, as Harvick’s car approached under caution, Hamlin took a couple of steps toward the track and slung his HANS device in Harvick’s direction. It was immediately unclear whether that would qualify as approaching the track or approaching a car on the track, two infractions clearly stated in the new directive.

“He [Hamlin] exited the car as he should have at the direction of the safety crews. There wasn’t an issue,” a NASCAR spokesman told Newsday via email following the race.

Unlike the Burton/Earnhardt incident of 2002, Hamlin was far away from Harvick’s car. Saturday’s unrest was more similar to a 2012 Bristol post-wreck altercation between Stewart and Matt Kenseth that ended with Stewart throwing his helmet into Harvick’s windshield as officials were trying to get Stewart into an ambulance and Kenseth was exiting pit road. 

In both the NBA and NHL, rules have been enacted that mandate automatic suspensions for players leaving the bench during fights on the playing surface.

But in announcing the new policy, NASCAR hinted that it would not pursue a similar zero-tolerance direction. NASCAR’s release said, “As with other behavioral infractions, NASCAR will handle each instance separately when assessing potential penalties.”

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