The Frontstretch: Sometimes, NASCAR Needs To Be The Bad Guy by Kurt Smith -- Friday March 12, 2010

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Sometimes, NASCAR Needs To Be The Bad Guy

Happy Hour: The Official Journalist Of NASCAR · Kurt Smith · Friday March 12, 2010


Though most sports would be happy to enjoy the ratings that NASCAR does, the powers that be recognize that they’re in a decline, and have been taking some unusual measures to stop the bleeding. Until recently, NASCAR had never consulted the drivers, media, and fans to help them fix waning interest. For any sport to reach out so much for ideas is rare, but it’s even more unheard of for NASCAR.

Not so anymore; instead, the sport’s leadership is going out of their way to say “we’re listening.” Recent ad campaigns have focused on consistent start times and letting drivers take off the gloves. They’ve lifted the gray areas on bump drafting. Double-file restarts are trumpeted as the new catalyst for exciting on track battles. At the end of races, the announcers excitedly explain the new rules that are used to ensure a green flag finish.

You could argue that they deserve some credit for listening to fans’ suggestions. This writer is very, very happy about the start times. But I don’t think NASCAR or the fans were counting on Brad Keselowski’s car pirouetting and crushing its roof in a frightening wreck, just four races into a season where the very rivalry mentality they had been encouraging was the root cause of the crash.

It’s easy to blame Carl Edwards in hindsight, but it’s likely he didn’t intend to send Keselowski airborne. And NASCAR may have had a pang of “uh-oh” after promoting driver cage matches, although the Edwards penalty didn’t reflect that. It turns out that “have at it, boys” may not be the wisest thing to say to “boys” who pilot 3,400-pound cages of steel inches from each other at 190 MPH.

It doesn’t serve the sport well for a wronged driver to get back out onto the track for no other reason than to take his antagonist out of the race, but it’s understandable. In the scene in Days of Thunder where Tom Cruise’s character gets new tires on his car after the race to exact revenge on the winner who wrecked him, of course you’re rooting for him. When Edwards was taken out of the race, it didn’t look like it was intentional, but Brad Keselowski has a reputation for all-out aggression, and Edwards said as much before getting back out on the track with nothing but revenge on his mind.

Carl’s “Eddie Haskell of NASCAR” reputation notwithstanding, the most gentlemanly drivers in the sport have given in to road rage at times. Some years ago Dale Jarrett—yes, that Dale Jarrett—got back out onto the track at Bristol after his race was ended by Ryan Newman, and Jarrett went after Newman and returned the favor. And you could say that is one of the reasons people love Bristol.

In happens in sports. In baseball, on occasion a batter will be hit by a pitch that looks intentional, and the umpire will let it go. Then the other team retaliates by throwing at a batter of equal stature, the umpire warns both teams and it ends there—usually. Sometimes the situation gets out of control, and while this may fire up the fans, the umpires and the league have to restrain it before pitchers start throwing at heads.

Raw emotional displays and outbursts have long been a draw in NASCAR races, but the sanctioning body does have a responsibility to keep such events in check.

NASCAR is in a quandary here. Passion and emotion and blown fuses, pushing and shoving and giving no quarter, all of that gives us in the media something to write about and fans a reason to click on websites. Fights are part of what sells hockey. Crushing hits are part of what sells football. The violence, kept to a certain level, appeals to a part of us that gets tired of taking crap from the world. But no matter how much the fans and media enjoy that, the sanctioning body sometimes has to be the killjoy that keeps it from getting out of control. A Keselowski-Edwards conflict may attract some fans, but unlike in most sports, innocent bystanders can get caught up in it. And seeing Keselowski come out of the car looking that woozy was over the limit.

Keselowski’s Atlanta wreck was a reminder that racing is a life-threatening endeavor, and as entertaining as rivalries that involve intentional carnage may be, the outcome could be lethal. For all the clamoring for more head-butting on the track from fans and media, NASCAR would take the blame for not having averted a calamity. And rightly so.

The sport wasn’t just built on the fight in turn three. That was memorable, sure, one of the most memorable races in the sport’s history. One of the NHL’s most memorable games may be their nationally-televised brawl between the Red Wings and Avalanche some years ago. No doubt the Detroit crowd thoroughly enjoyed it. Hell, I did and I’m a Flyers fan.

Events like that stand out because they’re rare. If the Keselowski-Edwards skirmish we saw Sunday happened every week, the sport would be an absolute joke.

Some people watch the Ultimate Fighting bouts and even order them on pay-per-view, but it’s too over the top for me. If those guys are willing to get into an octagon and risk that kind of a beating, more power to them—when crazed nut jobs fly planes into our buildings, I want guys like that on our side. But UFC is just too high on the unpleasant meter for me to consider it entertainment.

It may be part of the game, but fighting isn’t what hockey is all about, nor is throwing at batters what makes great baseball. And stock car drivers deliberately wrecking each other, while entertaining in a perverse way, isn’t racing.

NASCAR’s desire to please the fans is at least a step forward from the tone-deafness they had shown in recent years, and maybe to some extent the drivers should police themselves and establish respect. Just so long as NASCAR recognizes that they are the ones responsible for establishing a limit, however unpopular it may sometimes be. Because as Carl Edwards proved last Sunday, sometimes drivers don’t know their own limitations.

The probation for Edwards is acceptable, since neither he nor NASCAR anticipated the result of his actions. Hopefully, Carl and the rest of the drivers in the garage know better now what can happen. And hopefully, NASCAR informs both Carl and Brad that the intentional wrecking ends at this point – their marketing ideas be damned.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • A great many commentators have taken to blaming the wing for Keselowski’s Atlanta flight. No one dislikes the wing more than I do, but I’ve seen plenty of cars go airborne with the spoiler, particularly at plate tracks. If a car gets turned backwards at that speed, air gets underneath the car and it is likely to lift it. The wing probably doesn’t help, but the spoiler isn’t going to stop it from happening.
  • The big winner in all of this Edwards controversy was Goodyear, after a race where close to a dozen cars had serious tire issues. The affected cars included all of the entries from Hendrick Motorsports, who aren’t known for making mistakes when it comes to setups that abuse rubber. You’d have to think without that other little attention grabber, Goodyear would be taking some serious heat from Junior fans, who saw their hero finish 15th with the best car he’s had in two years.
  • Since Kevin Harvick wants the fines back that he paid, and Robby Gordon has questioned whether he would have been treated so lightly, I wonder if anyone has asked Carl Long what he thinks.
  • Does anyone know what happened to the GoDaddy sponsorship on the No. 5 car last week? The No. 5 just had the Hendrick logo on the hood. Did Martin not agree to a racier commercial than he signed on for?

Contact Kurt Smith

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03/12/2010 01:38 AM

I wonder if Brad’s team would have went looking for a fight if they knew the only penalty they would receive was a little probation. I would say the The Captain told them to let nascar handle it, which of course they did not.

03/12/2010 10:45 AM

I still feel like I’m out on an island with this.

I don’t have any doubt that the airborne-ness was unintentional. I don’t care so much about “he shouldn’t have done it at a fast/big track”.

What I do have a problem with is a backmarker taking out a top 5 car on purpose with 3 laps to go.

I feel like Nascar’s non-punishment of Edwards condones team-points-racing. How’s everyone going to feel when Clint Bowyer wins the Cup championship because at homestead, harvick has a bad day and while several laps down takes out the 48 on purpose to give Clint the points he needs to win?

Regardless of what you think about revenge, or Brad, or Carl, or safety…those are points that the #12 team cannot get back.

When Dale Jarret did it, it was after the race.

Almost all of the other incidents I can think of were while-racing-for-position, or cool-down-lap-revenge.

To clarify, I don’t want to see anyone get hurt either, but I also don’t want to see a championship, or race win, decided by a backmarker. (looking for revenge, or just helping out a teammate)

Michael in SoCal
03/12/2010 11:37 AM

I completely agree with what Chris said. Nascar screwed the pooch on this one.

Bill B
03/12/2010 12:16 PM

You aren’t out on an island. I agree that the car going airborne makes no difference to me either. My issue is with the sanctity of the sport. No one, whether they are a back marker or a front runner, should be out on the track with the sole purpose of getting revenge. You are supposed to be on the track to race. This is no different then a defensive lineman going over and clocking the quarterback after the play.
I can’t help but wonder where this leaves the future of the sport because what this tells me is that anything goes and purposely wrecking someone is acceptable. That is both dangerous to everyone at the track and undermining to the sport.
Now what will NASCAR do if every week someone takes revenge when they were the victim of a racing deal. They better park them and give them a 3 race probation and nothing else.

03/12/2010 01:18 PM

It seems to me the ones crying about this Carl Edwards thing are the young yuppie fans who haven’t been around to see how this sport was created…Bumping, banging, and yes wrecking are a part of this sport. Just as is “pay back” is. Dale Earnhardt made a career out of it and very few would cross his path on the track or in the pits.
So if brad or other drivers want to visit Carl’s pit, be forewarned, you will get more that you bargain for.This goes on every weekend all across the country at all those local speedways that you don’t ever attend…So now that you are fans and writers, I suggest you go and LEARN this sport so that you are qualified to speak on it. nascrap already has too many “sissy-boy drivers now!!

Jeff M. FS Staff
03/12/2010 01:40 PM

To Chris: “When Dale Jarret did it, it was after the race.”

I beg to differ sir! It was NOT after the race! I cant specifically tell you what lap it was, but I was there. DJ hooked Newman coming out of turn 2!

03/12/2010 02:07 PM

I always thought NASCAR fans were overwhelmingly conservative and republican. You know, the ones who want less government? So why are so many calling for the governing body of this sport to get so deeply involved in this? When did the sissy democrats discover NASCAR? Nobody got hurt, yet so many are hung up on the overly dramatic “coulda beens”. Just like our government, pass a bunch of laws cuz somebody got a little nervous seeing something scary. This car is far safer, so to compare it to the old ones is chicken little comparing apples to oranges. Sometimes things work themselves out and we just need to have the faith to let it be. Carl is contrite, the sponsor has spoken out, and Denny Hamlin is pondering his next move with Keselowski. Really, it’s gonna be alright. If yur skairt, pull them belts tighter…or turn on some figure skatin’.

Richard in N.C.
03/12/2010 02:34 PM

I don’t fully agree with the way NASCAR handled the Atlanta mugging – but, as I recall, Swervin Irvan was eventually reined in by the drivers not NASCAR. It seems to be that policing the track is now up to ALL the drivers, not just a couple.

It does seem curious that Jack Roush doesn’t seem to want to talk about the incident and no one in the media seems to want to try to get him to talk.

03/12/2010 02:49 PM

(Jeff, I must be thinking of something else entirely, thanks for the correction.)

As someone who grew up spending every weekend at Wall Township Speedway, or some other Nascar Modifieds track in the northeast, I surely value the “contact sport” nature of racing. At Wall, almost all passes are bump-n-runs, what else are you going to do on a high-banked 3/8 mile oval?

What I don’t want to see is something like what Nelson Piquet Jr. did a couple years ago in F1, bring out a caution (wreck himself) so that his teammate could win, in a premeditiated and preplanned (before the race) fashion.

In this case, it would be, as an example, McMurray wrecking Junior at Richmond so that Junior misses the chase and Montoya makes it in.

I hope the “self policing” in the garage is such that I’ll never have to see that sort of thing. It would be wonderful if it were a non-issue.

But, this looks alot like Nascar is saying that this sort of gaming the system might be accepatble behavior.

2 guys competing for the win shouldn’t have to be concerned that the backmarker they’re about to put a lap down might wreck them intentionally because his teammate’s in 3rd place.

03/12/2010 04:30 PM

I wonder what would have happened to BK if he was running with Curtis Turner, Lee Petty, Buck Baker or Junior Johnson? It wouldn’t have been pretty but it would have been effective. Whether it was on the track or in the pits with a tire iron there would have been payback. If you don’t recognize the names, you’re way too young to be commenting.Young people think they know it all; their grandparents know that they don’t.

03/12/2010 05:22 PM

Nothing would have happened to BK – He would have fit right in. Those guys came to race (the whole race) and to win. None of this cruising crap till 10 or 20 to go that MOST of these cry-babies adhere to. BK comes to race every lap and I like racers. I am not a BK fan but I admire his fire. Eddie Haskell is a Jekyl and Hyde character. Ask Junior, Kenseth or Harvick.

03/12/2010 08:55 PM

Not to worry. It’s not the drivers that will police themselves, it’s the owners and sponsors. Anyone happen to read the statements from Scotts, a major Edwards sponsor?
“Scotts appreciates the support of NASCAR fans everywhere, and we have an excellent relationship with Carl Edwards, Jack Roush, and the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team. However, like many fans, we were very concerned about the on-track incident that occurred in Atlanta this past weekend. As a result, we have strongly expressed these concerns to both Carl and Jack, and we are confident that they have a clear understanding of the trust we have placed in them as ambassadors of our company, our associates, and our brands. In addition, as a sponsor, we want to make sure that drivers, race teams, and NASCAR focus on keeping these types of incidents and misjudgments from happening.”
A “clear understanding” = $$$$. Funny how we haven’t heard a thing from ‘Ole Cousin Carl since his rant on FB. I doubt Jack has to ask Joe Gibbs for advice on how to handle an unruly driver.

Contact Kurt Smith