CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When things are going wrong on the racetrack, it's not uncommon for Dale Earnhardt Jr. — or almost any other driver — to unleash a stream of obscenities over their in-car radio.

Any fan in the stands with a scanner can hear the chatter — foul language and all.

But as NASCAR attempts to put the brakes on cursing, drivers may soon have to muffle those candid moments of anger.

"What we say on our radio inside our race car is our own business and nobody else's," said Earnhardt Jr., a notorious curser. "Anybody else can tune in, but it's at your own risk. That's our office."

So far NASCAR isn't restricting driver language in the race car. But the sanctioning body has "reminded" drivers to make an effort to keep it clean.

The first warning came last month at North Carolina Speedway, when NASCAR president Mike Helton explicitly told drivers to watch their mouths on radio and television.

Just in case there was any question over his seriousness, the sanctioning body handed driver Johnny Sauter a stiff penalty for using the "s" word in a post-race radio interview at Las Vegas. Sauter was fined $25,000, docked 25 Busch series driver points and put on probation until the end of the year.

The punishment didn't go unnoticed in the garage area.

"It's one of those deals where they've got to lay the law down and we've got to abide by it," said Kevin Harvick, Sauter's teammate. "It's not NASCAR cracking down, it's the government. It's time to clean it up."

It is in fact the government — actually the Federal Communications Commission — that Helton cites every time he outlines the new ban on cursing.

Since Janet Jackson's breast-baring halftime show at the Super Bowl, the FCC has cracked down on objectionable content and recently warned it could fine broadcasters up to $500,000 for airing questionable material.

Should a NASCAR affiliate be fined because one of the competitors cursed, Helton said the offender might be held accountable to pay the fine.

"This is a serious issue for us because it affects our perception to the public," Helton said. "But, more importantly, it has become a significant issue at the federal government level to the point where, there were a couple of half-million-dollar fines handed out to some radio networks for a couple of words that were used on a live radio show.

"And I'll tell you, if it gets to the point that this happens in our sport, we're not going to pay those fines. We'll pass them on to somebody."

At least one of NASCAR's broadcasting partners has already taken protective measures against obscenity. Because affiliates complained about Sauter's bomb, the Performance Racing Network used an unprecedented seven-second delay during its radio broadcast of last weekend's race in Atlanta.

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So far, the Motor Racing Network has not planned on using delays in its broadcasts.

"We're going to leave it to the radio stations," MRN president David Hyatt said. "None of our affiliates have come to us and asked for a delay to be put in."

In a sport where drivers routinely cut each other off and cause fender-benders, it's often difficult for an angry competitor to hold his tongue.

They'll have to from now on.

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