The Frontstretch: NASCAR, Bowyer, Gordon Gone Wild... The "New Normal?" What Next? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 12, 2012

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NASCAR, Bowyer, Gordon Gone Wild... The "New Normal?" What Next?

Thomas Bowles · Monday November 12, 2012


Only two words can describe the racing Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Twilight zone.

In one corner, you had Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion who’s more likely to be found watching The Wiggles than throwing a punch piling into Clint Bowyer’s car like Triple H attempting a suplex. The objective clearly was not just to wreck but destroy, sparking an embarrassing, full-scale brawl involving everyone from opposing jackmans to Team Vice-Presidents. NASCAR will be reduced to YouTube fodder this Monday, for everything from Clint Bowyer’s “beer man’s” sprint to try and chop Gordon’s head off, to the herd of police that had to guide Gordon from the racetrack in order to keep him physically intact, to the “romper room”-style antics of uncontrolled fighting that looked like a bunch of WWE dropouts trying to audition off a bad script. It was a man who’s spent the last 20 years as the best driver of his generation making a two-second call that briefly made him the dumbest.

You had his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who’s spent a half-dozen years taking his main Chase challenger by the bootstraps, making them believe they had a chance and then crushing their heart into tiny little pieces down the stretch. In most cases, the end result creates so many traumas it takes well over a year for said driver to recover (see: Hamlin, Denny; Edwards, Carl). So how did Johnson handle Keselowski’s heart this time? By promptly, um, melting a bead on the right front – perhaps caused by overdriving his car – slamming hard into the outside wall, pulling into the garage and virtually handing the trophy and the title of “changing of the guard” to his biggest rival. With it went thousands of wasted words on Johnson’s pending coronation, created a bunch of shocked (and cheering) fans packed into Phoenix International Raceway and paved the way for the first champion not driving Hendrick chassis and engines to win it since Kurt Busch in 2004.

There was Keselowski himself, who fought circumstances and dodged bullets all the way to a sixth-place finish that put him on the doorstep of history he’d already like to change. Instead of acting joyous, a man about to accomplish a lifetime dream he sounded like an angry neighborhood watchman who’d spent the morning being shot at. Swearing like a sailor in a series of interviews, he claimed the last five laps of racing consisted of drivers trying to “kill themselves,” argued the dichotomy of being yelled at for racing Jimmie Johnson aggressively a week earlier and acted like a man who felt like he’d be remembered for earning the title based on J.J.’s misfortune – not the success of his own team, whose average finish this Chase is a sparkling 5.3.

And then you have the last lap, NASCAR’s version of Demolition Derby on steroids in a circus-like finish more like a video game than real life. An oil slick, Danica Patrick creeping slowly on the frontstretch and a large debris field of sheet metal were apparently not reasons to throw the yellow but bonus obstacles to avoid, a man-made firepit of death as cars came towards the checkered flag at full speed. A half-dozen cars got wrecked, Ms. Patrick got airborne and the only safe thing about the last five seconds is that no debris reached the grandstands.

Oh, and did I mention the winner, Kevin Harvick, spent the weekend dodging reports he’s leaving the only Cup team he’s ever driven for in order to race for Stewart-Haas in 2014? Creating an awkward Victory Lane, then postrace presser where a stunned Richard Childress still didn’t know how to react to what he considers an outright backstabbing? Yeah, ‘cause people win in the midst of these kind of dramas all the time.

Yikes. There’s so much cray-cray from Phoenix Honey Boo Boo’s redoing her holiday special just to compete. But in the midst of digesting this mess, what does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? For the answer, we go to the word that defines all of these surprising developments…


Yes, more aggressive driving is what we need in this sport. Nice, single-file formations with plenty of room between drivers to avoid that dreaded “aero push” have a way of creating empty seats in the stands. But there’s a huge difference between roughing someone up and using your vehicle as a blatant attempt to cause bodily harm. That puts NASCAR on the radar for the wrong reasons, the danger of the sport highlighted instead of the beauty of controlled aggression. Keep in mind what Gordon did in ending the championship chances of Bowyer is also no different than what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday at Texas last November. Anything less than a race suspension at Homestead, even for the four-time champ will raise questions about where, exactly is the line of “Boys, Have At It.”

Yes, a new champion is exactly what NASCAR needs considering most fans that tuned off during the Chase simply assumed Jimmie Johnson would come out on top. Now, after two years of missed opportunities anyone who says “the No. 48 is an automatic” should be handed a new title: “moron.” But what Johnson’s crash does, despite the ascendance of Keselowski, is make this title Chase as little more than a yawner. Except for those anxious to see the No. 2 car rise, Homestead will be a whole lot of racing in 10th, staying out of trouble and ensuring Penske Racing earns their first NASCAR championship. Sadly, it’s not the type of scenario that will get millions of new race fans tuning in.

Yes, NASCAR loses something, an element of drama, when the race doesn’t end under a green-flag finish. But the Patrick incident, a wounded car sitting in the middle of the frontstretch is exactly why we don’t race to the caution flag anymore. Dale Jarrett, in a similar scenario at New Hampshire back in 2003 narrowly avoided being hit and/or seriously hurt. Patrick only avoided the injury part this time; considering how high her car got airborne, along with Paul Menard’s battered front end that’s honestly a bit of a miracle. Look, I’m all in favor of a green-flag finish. So instead of having everyone slam into each other, why not in these types of situations void the white-flag lap, pull another green-white-checker and start again? If safety is the number one priority, racing to the caution (or checkers) is not coming back consistently so that’s going to be the next best thing.

Lions, and tigers, and crazy wrecks… oh my. This race wasn’t Kansas, or Phoenix… more like the NASCAR Twilight Zone?

Keselowski himself is one who clearly speaks his mind. But his postrace interviews, while full of p*** and vinegar also lay out a compelling case. He was knocked for having a “death wish,” by Tony Stewart last week after aggressive driving against Jimmie Johnson, but the last few laps at Phoenix resembled a fight to the death. What do drivers want? What does NASCAR want? This back-and-forth pendulum of too little or too much is like Goldilocks skipping the “just right” portion. Nothing, at Phoenix appeared to be normal.

But is that because everyone – from the drivers, to the fans, to NASCAR itself – has lost their grip on what the right version of “normal” should be?

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11/12/2012 11:11 AM

Tom, Kyle Busch was on probation when he did his thing with Hornaday. And this race should have been yellowed after Harvick took the white flag and ended under yellow. NA$CAR thumbed their noses at the safety of the drivers for a green flag finish. That’s the most disgusting thing thing from that race yesterday.

11/12/2012 11:28 AM

Gordon should not be allowed to race next sunday. It’s that simple.

11/12/2012 12:22 PM

Lets see how consistent NASCAR will be. Last year Kyle Bush was parked for one race. He took out Hornaday, a championship contender and himself. Jeff Gordon took out a championship contender, himself and not one but two innocent drivers. OR maybe this was a also a way of preserving JJ to at least guarantee him the runnerup spot in the championship.

11/12/2012 12:47 PM

First commenter is right in noting that Busch was already on probation at the time when he was suspended. And there are other differences, notably that Gordon and Bowyer race all season together in Cup, whereas Busch was running in a lower division and had no particular need to stand up for himself that way. Same can be said for Harvick when he was suspended. I wouldn’t be against a suspension for Gordon, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t important differences in this case.

Kevin in SoCal
11/12/2012 01:43 PM

Ummm first time since 2004 that it wasnt Hendrick? Tony Stewart was driving for Joe Gibbs when he won in 2005.

11/12/2012 02:07 PM

Great call on the caution, NASCAR. Lucky no one got killed or seriously injured. Amazing how fast cautions get called for “debris”. What a farce! Oh, and Kevin Harvick, or mr “class” as I like to call him. Makes Childress look like a fool and talks about how he likes fights: right, only time I ever saw him fight he kept his helmet on. What a jerk.

11/12/2012 04:22 PM

The kybu comparision isn’t the same. Gordon isn’t on probation and although he and CB have a history of issues this year, they don’t have a history of wrecking. CB has selective memory there. I was watching the race and he did get into Gordon first, if Jeff had gotten to him right then it probably would have just wound up with a small amount of bent metal. Gordon went from going to have a top 10 finish to going to have a terrible finish again – courtesy of Bowyer. Bowyer himself said he didn’t need to pass him – well, then why did he drive in under him?

People can’t have it both ways, either the drivers push and shove or they drive around doing a parade.

Then you have the 15 crew who jumped Gordon after he got out of his car – yeah, that’s something that Mikey can be proud of. CB ran as fast as he could to be part of it so he’s no angel either.

11/12/2012 04:25 PM

As I recall, Nascar didn’t fine or suspend Carl Edwards when he came back on track at Atlanta after lengthy repairs and put Keselowski into the catch fence. If they don’t penalize that, how can they justify penalizing this?

nigel turek
11/12/2012 11:12 PM

NO one points out the fact that Gordon could have cost Jimmie points by taking out 2 cars ahead of Brad. real team player

11/13/2012 12:36 PM

The bigger problem for Jeff is that he missed the 2 car, and screwed up the task he was given so JJ didn’t lose too many points. The fine from HMS will be higher than the one from NA$CAR. He will have to do Jr’s laundry again.


Contact Tom Bowles

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