Dale Earnhardt Jr. has this -- how should we put it? -- vocal nervous tic.

No, it's more like a case of verbal hiccups that won't go away. No matter how he tries to suppress them, they keep coming out.

Remember in high school speech class when the teacher told you to avoid "vocalized pauses," such as "uh" or "ah" or "um" or "you know?"

Sometimes, Earnhardt's vocalized pauses are profane.

That's easy to filter in print media for general readership. Live national TV, as we have seen in the past few days, is another matter. There, there is no filtering mechanism on behalf of those demographic groups who stand in denial of the actual state of the American language.

In Victory Lane at Talladega, Ala., on Sunday, an NBC interviewer asked a rather silly question: "What does it mean" to get a fifth win at this track?

To me, it sounded as nebulous as Mike Myers's satirical refrain in the Austin Powers movies: "What does it all mean, Basil?"

Now how was Earnhardt supposed to answer a question like that?

His late father had won twice that many races at Talladega. Junior's "milestone" wasn't one.

With us print types, he could have given the answer he gave -- which seemed to reflect a glimmer of disgust with the question, thrown like a monkey wrench into his unbridled jubilation moments after winning a race -- and we could have ignored it. It was hardly relevant to the story of his day.

Or he simply could have ignored the question from us. But he can't turn away from NBC because NBC pays megabucks for telecast rights, and via the contract he's under orders to answer to the best of his ability.

So he did -- while still gasping for breath just seconds after climbing out of a racecar whose interior had roasted him at 140 degrees for three hours at 190 mph.

"Well, it don't mean [expletive] right now," he said. "Daddy's won here 10 times."

That single, blurted expletive may well cost him the championship.

And that would be unprecedented, not only in NASCAR but in all of sports.

As punishment, NASCAR on Tuesday docked Earnhardt 25 championship points, dropping him out of the lead in the standings, in addition to fining him the $10,000 that has been standard for years for profanity on live broadcasts.

NASCAR cited precedent, calling the penalty "consistent" with the docking of 25 points each for similar infractions by Busch Series drivers Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday Jr. earlier this year.

But the Busch Series is Class AAA ball. Neither Sauter nor Hornaday is remotely in contention for the title. And that series follows the old system, with no 10-driver, 10-race "Chase for the Championship" playoffs.

And I don't even think the Sauter and Hornaday punishments were fair. Fine them, sure, and make it big enough to hurt. But don't let off-track language directly affect competition.

True, as many as 190 points are available in any given race, and Earnhardt could make up the 25. But it's also true that the seven venues left in the Chase favor other championship contenders more than him.

And, even under the old Winston Cup structure, championships were decided by fewer than 25 points in four of the past 16 seasons. Such a narrow margin of victory in the Chase structure not only is possible but probable.

True, NASCAR President Mike Helton warned the drivers about their TV language, back in February, citing FCC guidelines and crackdowns in the wake of the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl.

But it is also true that the FCC fined CBS and its affiliates, and let it go at that. It didn't devastate their businesses.

At Dale Earnhardt Inc., "this is a huge setback for the entire company," said director of competition Richie Gilmore. And it is.

Earnhardt started worrying minutes after the Victory Lane ceremony. Even when explaining his slip to us, he caught himself blurting more profanity. "I guess I need to go to some kind of a school -- maybe Dale Carnegie or something," to break the habit, he said.

After the punishment, NASCAR people told me a minister had e-mailed his thanks. Yeah, well, one of NASCAR's best-known Baptist chaplains once spoke exactly the same word to me, in an interview, with a tape recorder going, in much calmer circumstances, in much more measured tones.

If Helton and FCC Chairman Michael Powell are so bent on shielding the ears of the prudish demographics, then go ahead and fine Earnhardt not $10,000 but $100,000. Or fine him the entire $305,968 he won Sunday. Heck (pardon my language), fine him a flat $1 million. It'll hurt, but he can take it.

But don't do this to him. There are ways of getting the guy's attention without devastating him.

Gordon Favored in Kansas

Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday's Banquet 400, favors Jeff Gordon far and away more than any other Chase contender. In the three Cup races run there, he has won twice and finished fifth once.

His average finish there is 2.33. Earnhardt has but one top-10 finish Kansas City, Kan. and his average is 19.0 for the three races.

So don't say Earnhardt can slough off the 25-point penalty overnight.

The only good news for Earnhardt is that Kurt Busch, who inherited the points lead after Earnhardt was toppled from the top, has an average finish of 26.67.

A single, blurted expletive may wind up costing Dale Earnhardt Jr. the points championship.