The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: What Is And Isn’t Acceptable In The "Have At It" Age by Kurt Smith -- Thursday May 12, 2011

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Editor’s Note: Matt is off this week for his niece’s graduation. Look for him to return next Thursday with another great column for your enjoyment.

Greetings Race Fans! It’s me again, Mr. Part Time Commentator and Formerly Official Columnist of NASCAR Kurt Smith, once again attempting to fill in the big and bad shoes of the irascible Matt McLaughlin. While I always consider the opportunity an honor, it also helps to have a noteworthy topic to write about, as we certainly do this week.

As we all know, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have never been known for their Barney theme duets, had a big flare up in Darlington Saturday night, allowing NASCAR to breathe a sigh of relief at no one knowing who Regan Smith is. Kyle wrecked Kevin, Kevin got out of his car wanting to fight, Kyle knocked Kevin’s car out of the way on pit road.

And since then we’ve all been reading commentary on what constitutes acceptable behavior for NASCAR drivers in the age of “have at it,” I’m here to help and I’ll keep it simple. Busch wrecking Harvick: acceptable only in the context of returning a favor from Homestead. Harvick getting out and wanting to throw down: completely acceptable, certainly after a driver has been wrecked near the end of 500 miles of grueling racing it should be expected. The only possible penalty should be for swinging at a guy strapped in his car, and Kyle had plenty of time to get out and throw his helmet like a man. Busch shoving Harvick’s car out of the way on pit road: completely unacceptable, ever.

Robin Pemberton probably never believed he’d still be hearing about his 2010 statement to “have at it, boys and have fun” a year and a half later. At the time the message was directed mostly at how drivers should handle their cars and fuses at restrictor plate tracks. NASCAR had been struggling for years to enforce ridiculous bump drafting rules at Talladega especially (“don’t bump the driver in front of you too aggressively as determined by those watching on monitors in an air-conditioned booth”); drivers were rightly complaining that there wasn’t any clarity on when and when not to bump draft in 30-car packs at 190 MPH.

The phrase was also meant to suggest that NASCAR wasn’t going to come down on feuds as they had been; this in the wake of fan complaints about drivers being bland and sponsor-friendly and following the fourth championship for Jimmie Johnson, a driver with a ridiculous and in fact admirable lack of altercations with other drivers in his career.

If no one had ever said “have at it,” it’s likely anyone would have noticed any change in drivers’ behavior. Carl Edwards turned Brad Keselowski on his roof in Atlanta, and there is little doubt that he would have behaved in exactly the same road rage manner had he never heard the phrase. Did anyone watching Texas last year think Jeff Gordon would have sat in his car quietly after being wrecked by Jeff Burton had NASCAR not winked and said fistfights are now deemed necessary for the sport’s survival?

The scuffle following this weekend’s Cup race in Darlington, and subsequent fines, has many wondering what is, and isn’t acceptable in the “have at it boys” age.

Clever if unintentional marketing on NASCAR’s part. Perhaps someone could impress on them how much people would discuss the Bristol night race every year if a looming playoff didn’t neuter it.

There is a certain amount of “have at it” in most sports. Certainly it is such in hockey and football and to a lesser extent in baseball and basketball. Offenses that might land people in jail outside of a sporting arena result in little more than a trip to the penalty box or at most a brief suspension. And if someone takes a cheap, dirty shot at another competitor, often an official will allow retaliation before enforcing an established rule.

But it usually ends there. Baseball loves its rivalries, but it’s not likely that it would bring up an ugly game where two teams had thrown baseballs at each other’s heads for most of the evening to stoke the ratings. As Ryan Newman said of plate racing, if you’re watching this for the violence, go somewhere else.

Everyone possesses tremendous bravery behind the wheel of a car. (There was a Sniglet for it: “Carjones”). It doesn’t take any guts to use your car as a weapon. What takes mental strength is to think for a moment before doing it. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to manage, as any driver can tell you. But it would happen if NASCAR saw to it.

NASCAR seems to be trying to walk a line between participants’ safety and ratings-friendly entertainment. This is a mistake. There should be no such line. If a driver deliberately and obviously uses his car as a weapon and puts another person’s life in danger, he should be punished unreservedly—and if NASCAR is not prepared to do that, then at the very least they should allow a retaliation and then lay down the law for anything that happens beyond it.

Pit road is a more sacred animal. Any dangerous driving penalty should be upgraded if an incident happens on pit road, where crew members and officials aren’t protected by roll cages and sheet metal.

I say this as a fan of Kyle Busch the driver. And I’m not entirely unsympathetic to why he did what he did, with Harvick’s crew running to join in the fun (Kyle’s crew may have conveniently remembered his occasionally unwarranted admonishments of them, and arrived a little slowly to the scene). Busch is probably aware that it’s not just drivers who have a great interest in physically correcting his cockiness. But for him to turn another car on pit road, as drivers have done before him, should have resulted in a suspension for a race. No points, no money, and make the sponsor think twice about the actions of the driver who’s piloting their logo.

NASCAR is probably enjoying people talking about this incident now; fortunately no one was hurt. I’m not faulting them for that. But they should be wary of the caliber of audience they seek. I doubt that even in the days of Earnhardt vs. Waltrip that the NASCAR fan base has ever consisted primarily of bloodthirsty lunatics hoping to see a demolition derby at 200 MPH and possibly a death on the track. But such people exist. If NASCAR attracts that type of a fan base, what will it do to keep it? “Have at it harder, boys”?

At Darlington, Kyle Busch paid back Kevin Harvick for Miami last year. For that incident, NASCAR can step in and say ‘OK boys, you’ve had at it and it ends at this point, and the next time one tries to wreck the other they will be suspended.’ The longest of longtime fans probably would not have a problem with this.

Harvick, for this incident, deserves no penalty, certainly not a fine or even probation. He didn’t do anything that Robin Pemberton wouldn’t have done had he been deliberately wrecked.

But Kyle Busch turning the No. 29 on pit road should be considered among the severest of infractions, as a strong statement that reckless behavior on pit road will not be tolerated. If a sponsor pays a price, you can bet drivers will straighten up.

Race a guy hard, bump him, move him out of the way, rattle his cage: all of those things are legitimate parts of racing through which many drivers have achieved Hall of Fame careers. And as long as a driver is prepared to be raced the way he races, that’s fine, even to the point where drivers will occasionally put a repeat agitator in the wall.

NASCAR doesn’t need to spend time trying to define what “have at it” really means. Let the journalists and commentators discuss it all day long.

Their number one concern should be the safety of the participants, and rulings should stem first and foremost from there.

Where’s Kurt Smith been? That’s what many of us at the Frontstretch have been wondering ourselves, and honestly, since he’s been in hiding after applauding a race winner, we don’t really know either! But we can say that he’s at least been working on Ballpark E-Guides, which are comprehensive and entertaining PDF-format guides to enjoying the ballgame at major league ballparks. Check them out at www.BallparkEGuides.com !

Contact Kurt Smith

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Carl D.
05/12/2011 08:37 AM
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Kurt…

For the most part I agree with you. There is a limit to what you should be able to get away with, even on the track. Edwards flipping Keselowski’s car in Atlanta at close to 200mph definitely crossed that line. I agree that Kyle Busch pushing Harvick’s car into the wall on pit road was over the line as well, but I don’t think sitting him out for a race is the answer in this case. That penalizes Dover by having a star driver miss their event. Personally, I’m for a 25-point penalty to be assed both during the regular season and then reassessed to the adjusted total if that driver makes the chase. Penalize the driver and the team, but don’t penalize the fans and the track owners. I’m not saying you should never suspend a driver, but some discretion should be allowed. I think that a severe points penalty would get the message across and serve as an adequate deterent for future pit road incidents.

What won’t work is a meager 25K fine and a meaningless probation.

wcfan
05/12/2011 08:52 AM
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How did the 29car become unmanned/unattended? I believe whoever left that car unattended is equally responsible for the actions that happened on pit road.

While these are the 2 drivers I pull for, they both acted like A$$E$ Sat. night. I agree with Carl D. $25,000 will not get their attention.

I still have not heard where the nsacar officals were after the race. You have the flare-up on track during the race, and the post race on track action, then Harvick stops on pit road for close to 40 seconds before getting out of his car. And no nascar officals in sight. 43+ officals on pit road during race and not one around when they were needed.

Nascar is not trying to sell all star tickets are they?

don mei
05/12/2011 11:30 AM
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I guess we are going to beat this to death; no one is going to be convinced to change his mind. All I’ll say is Harvick is the one who left a race car unattended and that Spencer nailed it in his commentary.

Sherri T
05/12/2011 11:49 AM
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I don’t think that Harvick should be penalized for “intent” to throw a punch. Did they show him on camera with his elbow cocked back ready to throw? no. So getting out of his car does not a punch thrown make…

Kevin in SoCal
05/12/2011 12:56 PM
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I’m not a big fan of Kyle Busch, but what did you expect him to do? Kevin Harvick was coming at him full bore after parking his car in front of Busch’s on pit road. Kyle had lost reverse in his transmission trying to get away from Kevin on the race track. (Watch and see, he backs up quickly, then suddenly stops, and has to awkwardly drive forward around Kevin’s car to get to pit road. Then Kevin cut him off.)
Did you expect Kyle to sit in his car and let Kevin beat on him until an official got there and pulled Kevin away? Its my opinion Kyle was trying to get away from the situation, for whatever reason you want to believe. Kevin left him no choice but to push Kevin’s car out of the way after cutting Kyle off and parking in front of him on pit road. They’re both to blame here and they both share in the punishment.

Bill B
05/12/2011 01:09 PM
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Kevin,
I expected Kyle to get out of his car and deal with Harvick face to face. If that is a heated conversation then so be it. If that is a fist fight then so be it. The only reason Kyle didn’t get out of his car was that he was afraid he’d get his ass kicked.
He didn’t have a problem with sending Kevin into the wall (not implying Harvick was innocent) so why does he have a problem duking it out?

Doug in Washington (State)
05/12/2011 01:33 PM
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I never expect Kyle to get out and deal with anything face to face. He keeps his helmet on for his post-victory “bow”.

Frankly I’d do the same thing. I know straight up I can’t win a fistfight, so I try to avoid physical confrontations and instead get back in far more dirty ways. I don’t believe in fair fights, only winnable ones. Usually though I let myself cool off first rather than retaliate. If I’d been in Busch’s situation on pit road, I’d have done the same thing. But I’d have expected the car to just roll forward and stop on compression, not slam into the pit wall.

Was it right? No. Was Harvick pissed? Yes, and I would have been too.

It all started with hard no-quarters given racing which both drivers are known for. They’re both extremely dirty drivers, probably the worst 2 in Cup right now, though Montoya is pretty bad too. Kyle escalated things to a full boil by punting Harvick AFTER the yellow flew (but before anyone had a chance to slow down) in front of nearly the entire field. That should have gotten a minimum 2-lap penalty. Harvick then tried to wreck Kyle after the race, Kyle evaded, then Harvick blocked him and tried to throw a punch, which should have resulted in a 1-race suspension. Kyle then shoved the unmanned car into pit wall, which should have pulled a $100,000 fine and 10 points.

That’s my opinion.

Bill B
05/12/2011 02:19 PM
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Doug,
If I am reading your comment correctly, it was Kevin throwing a punch that should have drawn a suspension.
So wrecking someone on purpose (which could send someone to the hospital or worse) is less of a penalizable infraction than throwing a punch after the race (which rarely would result in anything but minor injuries and bruised egos).
Do I have that right?

Joe
05/12/2011 02:20 PM
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DiW(state),“I know straight up I can’t win a fistfight, so I try to avoid physical confrontations and instead get back in far more dirty ways. I don’t believe in fair fights, only winnable ones”. What a great line Doug, words to live by. This mess will not be over for years between Kevin and Kyle just like the ongoing feud between Montoya and Newman,I’m cool with that.

Doug in Washington (State)
05/12/2011 03:41 PM
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It wasn’t just the attempted punch (which is covered by the rulebook whereas everything else is under NASCAR’s catchall rule “actions detrimental…) it was the whole chase Kyle around the track before getting back on pit road, stopping, and blocking, etc. That shows premeditation. Everything Kyle did was spur-of-the-moment.

Maybe that shouldn’t matter. I can see that argument. The results are the same.

Intentionally wrecking someone on-track generally gets you parked for the rest of the current race. That’s the historic penalty, at least.

Frankly if BOTH got suspended a race I wouldn’t mind. I wanted Edwards suspended a race for wrecking Keselowski last year. In fact I boycotted Subway for the rest of the year (since I don’t do business with any of his other sponsors anyway). Can’t boycott any of Harvick’s sponsors since I don’t use any of them anyway, unless I want to replace my existing water heater. Boycotting Busch’s sponsor is a little more difficult because I actually like one of the products, but I don’t normally buy candy anyway.

Since NASCAR doesn’t seem to be inclined to dole out penalties with any teeth, it’s up to the sponsors to do so. They don’t seem to want to do so, which means they support it through inaction.

I knew the fair fight/winnable fight would take some flak. But that’s it- when you’re the runt, you aren’t gonna be the winner. I don’t pick fights and I prefer to walk away. But I also fall back a better tactical position if the other party wants to keep on fighting.

Matt
05/12/2011 06:12 PM
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Everyone needs to get over the whole deal. Drivers wreck other drivers intentionally or otherwise every dang week. This has been made a bigger deal because it is NASCAR’s resident bad boy that is the aggressor. Where was all of this outrage when Harvick did the same to him in Homestead? Harvick even took it a step further by admitting to Hamlin it was on purpose “I parked your teammate.” Malicious intent personified and what did he get? Absolutely nothing. So stop pretending like your concern is safety. We have seen cars get put in the catch fence which thank god have held, but we have seen incidents like Indy Car at Texas which have proven to be fatal to spectators.It was not a smart move to push Harvick’s car out of the way. But again, think about….It was a heat of the moment decision in which he probably thought Harvick’s car would move forward enough for him to get around; not go hard left into the wall. Why do we in the NASCAR community think that fighting is an acceptable way to resolve conflict? Baseball, football, basketball, every major sport with the exception of hockey and a strict one game penalty or more for what Harvick did. Why is it not enough to say they were both wrong and simply move on to the next race?

Red
05/12/2011 09:36 PM
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I am a little confused as to why pushing a stopped unmanned car on pit road is totally unacceptable and more dangerous than turning a car at 200 miles per hour on the front stretch and into the catch fence??? Get over it and enjoy the show.

Marshall
05/13/2011 01:24 PM
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Once again, the fans of this site want to rant about how bad Carl Edwards is and how Brad “Cause-a-wreck-ski” got on his roof in Atlanta, which was never Carl’s intent. But you guys never seem to remember that Brad’s only win came after sending Carl into the fence at Talladega where not only Carl was in danger but thousands of race fans. That’s one reason I don’t stop by this site very much any more.

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