By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott

America is hooked on courtroom drama, but things sometimes seem to drag on forever; we’re seeing that right now in a couple of high profile, televised trials. It took Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers to give us a definitive example of how quickly the wheels of justice can turn when left to their own devices. No episode of “L.A. Law” could have told both sides of the story better.

The scene of the incident was Infineon Raceway, host of the first of only two road course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. 

On a road course, opportunities to pass are few and must be seized without hesitation. Fairly early in the race, Stewart felt he had such an opportunity, but believed Vickers deliberately blocked him from being able to make the pass. 

Now, some drivers might have waited for another chance to come along. But you can’t always depend on that to happen in racing so Stewart took a more immediate approach. He knocked Vickers’ car in the back end, sending it spinning out of contention and taking several other cars along with it. 

Stewart didn’t really defend his action as much as explain it. “I dumped him because he was blocking,” he said. “If anybody wants to block all year, that's what I'm going to keep doing so they can handle it however they want … If they want to block, that's what is going to happen to them every time for the rest of my career."

Sounds like a combined confession and threat to me. Case closed, right?

Not exactly; things are never that simple on a racetrack, where there is always more to the story. Road courses don’t have the same degree of overall visibility as oval tracks. In a sport where some new challenge lies around every corner, Infineon offers 12 potential surprises instead of the usual four. So Stewart might not have realized that, according to Vickers, he pulled his No. 83 Toyota in front of Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy in order to avoid hitting another car.

It didn’t matter whether or not Stewart regretted his actions. At that point, Vickers’ tires may have been temporarily stopped, but those payback wheels were already set in motion. “He made his bed at that moment, and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said, going on to later knock Stewart’s car off the ground and out of the race. “He wrecked me, and I wrecked him.”

Another courtroom combo platter? It’s getting hard to separate the defendant from the plaintiff here. Everyone’s confessing to everything. 

So I’m going to get on that bandwagon and confess that I don’t really have an issue with blocking in general. Other sports use it. It’s basically just a defensive or protective move to prevent the other team from advancing or scoring. Why would you even consider just moving over to deliberately allow someone to gain an advantage over you?

I admit NASCAR is a little different. If a guy sitting 30th in the driver standings and five laps down in a race purposely gets in front of a potential championship contender, “encouraging” him to get out of the way seems reasonable. But that wasn’t the situation in the case of Stewart v. Vickers. It was early enough in the event that either driver still had a shot at the win. 

Both sides would claim their actions were justified. With the recent news that Red Bull will no longer be involved in NASCAR sponsorship after the 2011 season, Vickers is now in the position of auditioning for a new job. Stewart owns his team, so unless he decides to fire himself (unlikely), his seat is secure. But the two-time series champion is fighting for a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, and time is running out. Both drivers have to be feeling their share of stress. 

The great Roman statesman and orator Cicero – a lawyer himself – said that the foundation of justice is good faith. NASCAR proved a wise judge in this case, judging the matter a draw and leveling no penalties or fines, instead of dropping the gavel on someone’s head. 

Instead, self-adjudication ruled the day, with no definitive “Guilty” verdicts handed down. Stewart, who admitted he probably had it coming, said, “He did what he had to do; I don’t blame him.” 

Vickers concurred, noting that “Tony and I have been around long enough to know how to handle these things ourselves,” he said. “We’re both adults; we’ll figure it out.”

Case closed … for now. 

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Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site: Contact Cathy