The Frontstretch: Best of Bowles-Eye View : Payback Putting NASCAR In a Tough Spot by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday December 11, 2005

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Best of Bowles-Eye View : Payback Putting NASCAR In a Tough Spot

Thomas Bowles · Sunday December 11, 2005


It’s hard to put an article together after what happened in New Hampshire because, simply put, so much happened. For whatever reason, be it improvements to the track, the pressure of the Chase, or simply the right conditions at the right time, Sunday’s race was one of the best events New Hampshire has put on since it began hosting the Cup series back in 1993.

Unfortunately, good side-by-side racing came along with a side of several wrecks which left a number of drivers’ tempers boiling over in an all-too-familiar way. And now, with aggressive driving and paybacks at a season high, NASCAR may be forced to put its foot down as they try and decide how much emotion is too much.

In case you’ve been out of the loop, here’s a quick review of the on-track incidents NASCAR has been dealing with in the past few weeks:

  • At the Bristol night race in August, Ryan Newman taps Chase contender Dale Jarrett, sending him into the wall. An angry Jarrett brings his car around a few laps later under green and slams into the lapped car of Newman, taking both cars out and in a multi-car crash that damages several others.
  • At California, Sterling Marlin taps Robby Gordon heading into the first turn late in the race, inciting a multi-car wreck. Robby waits until Richmond to return the favor, wrecking Sterling halfway through the race and starting a series of several bumps and spins between the two drivers, which not only turned both their cars into junk but caused NASCAR to park each car five laps for rough driving.
  • Also at Richmond, Tony Raines taps Jamie McMurray in apparent retaliation for McMurray pushing him out of the way through the first and second turns late in the race. McMurray hits the inside wall on the backstretch, ending his chances of making the Chase, and Raines is penalized 5 laps for rough driving.
  • At the Busch race in Richmond the night before, Martin Truex, Jr. gives Mike Wallace the middle-finger salute after Wallace wrecks him on the back straightaway. Truex is fined after the race and loses 25 driver points, critical in the race for his second straight Busch title.

All those incidents were already on the mind of NASCAR officials heading into this Sunday at New Hampshire, and what happened there was just about equal to the past few weeks combined. The wildness began as Scott Riggs wrecked Chaser Kurt Busch within the first five laps. Within minutes of getting out of his car, Busch could be found walking briskly to the 10 team’s pit and talking with Rodney Childers. That, surprisingly enough, was the calmest moment of the day, and while Busch took a few verbal potshots at Riggs and the 10 team once the race was over, he avoided a visit to the NASCAR hauler.

Unfortunately, that incident was followed up by two more. NASCAR’s “good guy” Kasey Kahne went bad after being wrecked for what seems like the 1,000th time this year, coming back and slamming his damaged car into Kyle Busch when he wrecked the 9 car coming out of Turn 2. He then followed that up with an open and honest interview about how he thinks drivers should pay back other drivers on the track, an emotional side of Kasey you rarely see but something that will clearly cost him money and points come Tuesday afternoon, evidenced by the fact NASCAR immediately parked his car for the day as soon as the interview was over.

Shortly after that, NASCAR’s “bad boy” Robby Gordon added another incident to his resume, as he lost his temper when being hit by Michael Waltrip on the back straightaway. Robby’s car was turned into the wall and totaled, and an angry Gordon got out of his car and threw his helmet at the 15 car before being escorted into the ambulance. He then followed that up with an “S” word live on national TV before storming off to his own hauler. Waltrip wasn’t helpful either, as he refused to apologize despite replays and radio contact that indicated he may have put the bumper to the 7 car for racing him a little too hard.

What to think of all this, you ask? Well, it’s definitely given the sport some emotional energy it’s been lacking. Drivers are now all too often being escorted away after a wreck before you can find out how they really feel, the drama of pure emotion replaced by the cookie-cutter script fed from a PR person so as not to get a driver’s sponsors pissed off. These incidents have shown a human side to the drivers we’ve been missing, and let us in on the fact that the media and the fans aren’t the only ones noticing how many more wrecks there’ve been on the track this year. Certain drivers are tired of being run over, and feel like NASCAR hasn’t been penalizing the drivers who repeatedly step over the line and then give out a politically correct “I’m sorry” after the person they bumped is sent into the wall.

But the bottom line is, while it gives the fans much needed entertainment, payback on the track will always be dangerous. The Jarrett-Newman tango was particularly severe and could have gotten a driver seriously hurt, and any of the payback incidents we saw on Sunday had that same potential. Not only that, but those wrecks mean thousands of dollars in repairs and tons of extra work for the crew who has to fix that race car. I don’t think the guys that work on the 5 car in the shop were laughing after Kahne rammed into their car after his wreck.

NASCAR’s been trying to ignore the problem, giving the drivers a little bit of slack in letting them settle their own differences. But, whether or not NASCAR should have stepped in earlier and penalized some drivers responsible for several wrecks this season is a mute point. This whole cycle of payback has spiralled out of control, and I fear there we may now have some major fines and even suspensions on our hands to correct the problem. And while it may take away from the emotion of the sport, it’s the right thing to do. No one wins if a driver gets hurt, no crew wins when they have to repair a wrecked race car, and no fan wins when they see their driver wrecked five laps later for what amounted to a simple mistake on the racetrack.

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