NASCAR needs to draw sharper line

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon should have been parked.

According to an ESPN.com poll, 61 percent of more than 24,000 who voted agree.

I understand Gordon is a four-time champion, a great ambassador for the sport and one of the genuinely nicest people you'll ever meet. I understand he doesn't have a long history of roughing up drivers as Kyle Busch did when he was parked last year after wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. at a Truck series race in Texas.

I understand NASCAR is trying to get back to an era where drivers governed drivers on the track. I understand NASCAR has let this type of thing slide in the past without suspension, specifically 2010 when Carl Edwards was given a three-race probation for sending Brad Keselowski airborne at Atlanta.

But there has to be a limit. That limit was reached on Sunday when Gordon intentionally destroyed Clint Bowyer's car, ending any mathematical chance Bowyer had of competing for the championship.

You can say Bowyer provoked it with hard racing earlier in the year, particularly at the end of the Martinsville race in April where his last-lap dive-bomb took Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson out of contention for the race win.

You can say Bowyer deserved it.

But you can't support the way in which Gordon took out his frustration. If anybody should have known better, he should have. He didn't simply hook the rear corner and spin Bowyer out, which you can make look like hard racing even when it's not.

He had a Danica Patrick-type miss of Bowyer on his first attempt at revenge, then waited on the track for a second attempt in which he slammed Bowyer's car into the wall. He also collected Joey Logano, an innocent bystander in all this.

Logano, by the way, wrote on Twitter that he lost respect for his childhood hero.

And all Gordon got was basically a slap on the wrist, a $100,000 fine that is chump change for an athlete Forbes ranked 42nd in the world with total earnings of $23.6 million from June 2011 to June 2012.

He was fined 25 points that dropped him from 10th to 11th in the standings. Only the top 10 get to attend the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas. According to a tweet by his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, that's not a big deal either.

"Great we won't have to go to the banquet," she wrote with a smiley face.

What happened at Phoenix deserved more than a slap on the wrist regardless of who was driving. What Gordon did was put other drivers at risk and impact the championship battle, which drivers were sternly warned by NASCAR not to do during their prerace meeting.

It forced a green-white-checkered finish that could have affected the result of the race had Kevin Harvick not been able to hold on. It extended the race to allow a last-lap wreck by Danica Patrick that led to a handful of other drivers being taken to the infield care unit.

If Gordon was so mad he had to do something, he should have gone after Bowyer in the garage. Fighting, as even lesser fines given on Monday demonstrated, is OK.

This was NASCAR's chance to send a message, that penalties for the line it says can't be crossed will be upheld the same for everyone.

Here's the problem. NASCAR doesn't have a hard and fast rule when it comes to such things, so we don't know where the line that can't be crossed is.

NASCAR said "have at it, boys" a few years ago because fans accused it of over-policing the sport. It let things slide for a while, and then parked Busch and said that's the line. But when he was asked exactly what the line is last year, we got this from NASCAR president Mike Helton: "We'll know when we see it."

"The responsibility that over the past two or three seasons we've given back to the drivers came with a very clear understanding that there could be a line that got crossed," Helton continued at the time of Busch's suspension. "And as annoying as the comments that I've made in the past about 'we'll know it when we see it' might have been, we saw it last night."

I was pretty sure I saw it on Sunday at PIR. According to our ESPN.com poll, a majority of you saw it too -- although in the swing state of Delaware only 52 percent of you favored parking Gordon.

But NASCAR didn't -- at least not enough that it felt the need to send a stronger message that such behavior won't be tolerated.

This wasn't drama caused by hard racing going for a win like Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 1976 Daytona 500.

This was premeditated retaliation.

I'm still siding with what Keselowski said after the race, which he left with a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. This was ridiculous and embarrassing.

And judging from Monday's penalties, there's nothing to discourage drivers from doing it again.