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Are the wheels falling off of NASCAR's dictatorship?

Tony Stewart is back at the track and still making headlines. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

RICHMOND, Va. -- Tony Stewart spoke out and NASCAR fined him. So what else is new?

Well, for starters, you don't often see the NASCAR Driver Council immediately issue a statement in support of a fined driver, along with a pledge to pay the fine -- $35,000 in Stewart's case.

And it isn't every day that a senior NASCAR official publicly admits "it's time for us to take a look" at the issue involved.

Although NASCAR didn't offer any specifics, it is believed that Stewart incurred the fine by criticizing the organization in a Wednesday interview when he questioned why they are no longer having officials watch for loose lug nuts during pit stops. NASCAR dropped the practice at the start of the 2015 season as part of a pit road technology initiative that reduced the number of live officials on pit road.

Since lug nut enforcement was relaxed, some teams have made a practice of not installing all five on every wheel in trying to gain an advantage in the pits, especially late in races. Stewart believes that potentially creates an unnecessary hazard for drivers and fans and said as much.

NASCAR reacted quickly, as CEO Brian France defended NASCAR's safety record to the Associated Press Sports Editors on Thursday even before Stewart's fine was announced.

The nine-man Driver Council then publicly responded to France's comments within hours, with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin acting as spokesman.

On Friday morning at Richmond International Raceway, Hamlin elaborated on why he and the Council stepped up on Stewart's behalf.

"I think it kind of shows a unity amongst us," Hamlin said. "It really has nothing to do with lug nuts or no lug nuts or anything like that. It's more so the drivers believe that they have the right to express their opinion, especially when asked in an interview. We try to do our best to give honest answers, and sometimes those aren't always the best thing.

"We just think that there should be a little bit of leniency there for someone who knows a lot about our sport and has been in our sport for a long time," Hamlin added. "He gave his opinion, and especially when it's something on safety, I think it's pretty important. This was a way for us to send a message back to NASCAR that we believe we should have the right to speak our opinion."

Frankly, what Stewart said wasn't even that inflammatory. Citing a recent spate of loose wheels during Cup Series races, Stewart was controlled in a commentary that reached the common-sense conclusion that a wheel is more secure when held on by all five lug nuts rather than just two or three.

"We're putting the drivers in jeopardy to get track position at the end," Stewart said. "It has not bit anybody yet, but I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt.

"When they made the decision that they weren't going to monitor it, that was the big mistake that they made right off the bat," he added. "When you preach about safety, why would you sit there and have cars that are running 200 mph at the end of a straightaway that don't have all the lug nuts on the wheel that should be on it?"

NASCAR is unique among major forms of motorsport in having cars that still feature multiple lug nuts holding the wheel onto the hub. IndyCar, Formula One and sports car racing all utilize a hub with a large, single nut securing the wheels.

Hand jacks, five-lug wheels and crew-carried cans of fuel are all featured in NASCAR's strategy of creating pit stops that are deliberately retro when compared to other forms of racing. In that regard, pit stops are an important part of the NASCAR "show."

"I'm sure we could design a [single nut] hub in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage area, even for the Xfinity or [the] Truck Series," said 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. "But I was told that is not part of the show. The show is to watch those guys, the athletes, jump over the wall, hit their air guns and have them blazing and hit five lug nuts and put five back on.

"But when it's starting to cross the threshold of safety on speed versus the ability just to have that wheel hang on and try to get a win, that is what has happened here," he added. "If you go to your Goodyear tire store to get your tires rotated and they put on three lug nuts, you are not going to feel so comfortable about that."

Severe penalties are in place if NASCAR determines that a wheel is improperly installed, including a mandatory four-race suspension for the crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier involved.

NASCAR senior vice-president of competition Scott Miller said Friday that the organization had no reason to believe that loose wheels were an issue until recent remarks by Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle, who were not fined for comments similar to Stewart's.

"Those rules have served us well," said Miller. "But moving forward, the teams are being very aggressive with it and it has been brought up as a concern. When any of our competitors bring up a concern, it's time for us to take a look at it.

"Obviously NASCAR has worked very hard in the area of safety and it is certainly a topic we take very seriously," he added. "The teams are pushing harder than they have in this area and we'll take a look at it as an industry. Dialog is very good with the teams and we'll work internally and with them to move forward from here."

While NASCAR is still a benevolent dictator with a rulebook that pretty much allows it to fine anyone who says anything detrimental to the sport, there are signs that the situation is changing.

The existence of a "Race Team Alliance" and a "Driver Council" and the fact that NASCAR appears to actually listen to them are developments that could not have been imagined in the days when Bill France or Bill France Jr. were running the show.

NASCAR rarely changes its position on any issue, but it appears in this case that drivers publicly airing their concerns about safety could force its hand.

What is certain is that through the council, stock car drivers have a much stronger overall voice than they have in the past.

"We want to have one voice, because that one voice is obviously a little louder and clearer to NASCAR when we go into meetings talking about where it's going to head, from competition to safety to other things," said Hamlin. "I think [the Driver Council] has grown a lot over the last year and our communication as drivers, the barriers that we have, they have been broken down tremendously over the last year or two.

"Our meetings with NASCAR have changed the sport and will continue to change the sport for many years."