Beth Lunkenheimer · Wednesday May 11, 2011
Another Saturday night race with a Cinderella story winner in Regan Smith was overshadowed by two drivers throwing temper tantrums. And as Wednesday dawns in NASCAR-land, the bigger story continues to be not surrounding the man that won but the punishment doled out to two men who lost.
By now, everyone has heard about or seen the late-race altercation between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. With just a handful of laps remaining, the duo made contact on the track, an initial sideswipe by Harvick a combination of driving into the corner too hard and some contact with his teammate Clint Bowyer. What happened between that contact and the bump Harvick handed to Busch in the next turn is anyone’s guess, but two of the series biggest hotheads were already riled up from their previous fender-banging.
Seconds later, as a three-wide sandwich led to Bowyer spinning out, utter chaos ensued: Kyle Busch turned across the track and caught the back bumper of Harvick’s No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, sending him spinning and steaming towards retaliation after the checkered flag. After the race ended, the two headed toward pit road and played a juvenile game of chicken before ultimately stopping nose to tail near the pit road entrance. It didn’t take long for Harvick to get out of his car and head toward Busch, but the driver of the No. 18 didn’t want anything to do with a confrontation. Instead, he gunned the motor and shoved the No. 29 out of the way just as Harvick reached Busch and attempted to throw a punch through the open window.
Of course, both parties along with owners Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs were immediately invited to the NASCAR hauler for a “talk” about what happened. When asked about the conversation, Harvick simply grinned and said “not much” was discussed, while Busch openly criticized his rival for an aggressive style of racing.
Fast forward to Tuesday, the traditional NASCAR penalty day, and both drivers walked out of the incident with a minimal $25,000 fine and probation through the Pocono 500 in mid-June under the standard Section 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing involved in an altercation on pit road after the conclusion of the race).
NASCAR’s Senior Director of Communications and Competition Kerry Tharp had little to say about the consequences after they were announced, making it difficult to deconstruct officials’ thought process on their reasoning.
“These penalties are a result of what occurred on pit road after the race was over,” Tharp said. “They are about maintaining a safe environment on pit road.”
Are the consequences justified? Let’s start at the beginning. While I don’t condone using a race car as a weapon of retaliation, NASCAR has opened that can of worms with the “Boys, Have at It” mantra adopted last season. If that’s the way the sanctioning body wants the drivers to handle their differences, that’s fine, but frankly I’d rather see them handle it in the garage or on pit road — or better yet, privately — where lives aren’t endangered. Heck, even the pits may not be the best place to settle such arguments, especially considering Busch’s actions once Harvick got out of his car and headed toward the No. 18 sitting right behind him. Slamming into a parked car was both dangerous and potentially disastrous for innocent bystanders not paying attention to their argument.
Frankly, I expected both drivers to be penalized simply because Harvick threw a punch and Busch endangered those around him on pit road by punting the empty No. 29 into the pit wall. I mean, it’s not the first time a driver has been penalized for fighting, and it clearly won’t be the last. But what I don’t understand is why those penalties are equal. Last time I checked, throwing a punch at a guy who’s still sitting in his race car with his helmet on isn’t exactly going to cause any damage unless it comes in the form of a nasty bruise — or worse — to the hand of the driver doing the swinging.
On the other hand, shoving an unmanned 3,400 pound race car out of the way can create a whole plethora of dangers for those working on pit road to close out a race weekend. What exactly did Busch expect to get out of that move? After the race, he claimed he “made a judgment call there” and that he was “just trying to get away from it and get back to [his] hauler and go on with my own business.”
Huh? What kind of judgment call is that? I’ll give Busch the benefit of the doubt and agree that he was, in fact, more interested in getting back to his hauler, but it doesn’t take a genius to know the route Busch chose was clearly dangerous to those around the two cars on pit road. I can’t even begin to understand the thought process that brought Busch to the decision to punt Harvick’s car, and I don’t intend to try to explain it either.
That said, did both parties overreact? Definitely. And while I don’t necessarily agree with equal penalties for both parties involved, I do understand why NASCAR felt the need to police Harvick and Busch following their pit road altercation.
But the funny thing is that I’m almost 100% sure we haven’t seen the last of these two this season. NASCAR may be keeping a closer eye on both drivers, but as soon as the All-Star Race – remember, this probation is for points-paying events only – fireworks between the duo could easily explode once again.
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