Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday March 10, 2010
I received a call around midday Tuesday from Frontstretch’s Owner and Managing Editor Tom Bowles, asking me to change the topic of this week’s column. Not surprisingly, he requested a reaction piece for the NASCAR penalty issued to Carl Edwards following his lap 323 swipe at Brad Keselowski. You may have seen it by now: it was the crash that sent Keselowski’s Penske Charger inverted and imbedded, roof-first, into the frontstretch wall at Atlanta.
(By the way, it turns out that when you have a wing attached to something traveling the same speed aircraft do when they take off, they really do tend to fly away. But I digress…)
So what would be the price to pay for Edwards, exacting vigilante revenge on a superspeedway while 156 laps down, and after (judging from his post-wreck comments) essentially assuming the blame for the early-race accident that instigated his wrecking the No. 12? Would it be a couple weeks’ suspension? Disqualification from the event? A 150-point fine? Surely, some sort of monetary sacrifice would be in order… right?
Hardly. For sending another driver airborne towards innocent spectators, Carl Edwards received all of three weeks of probation. It was equivalent to a slap on the wrist, in my opinion … with the penalty so incredibly light, that slap could have just as easily been confused with a massage.
Wow. As much as I was at a loss for words, they could have just posted a picture of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for my reaction…
Before we get started, know my feelings on this subject are in no part due towards any ill will or animosity towards Edwards. I have always felt him to be a great ambassador of the sport, supremely talented, and a driver you didn’t have to worry about giving NASCAR a black eye. In this case, however, I feel he has done just that, and NASCAR’s decision to do nothing has not only justified it – it’s set a dangerous precedent going forward.
Let me first clear up this misconception that this mess is, in some way, “getting back to our roots” in NASCAR. Yes, drivers have wrecked other drivers many times throughout the past sixty-plus years. Sure, guys would take a shot at each other back in the golden days – but not at 190 mph. Stock car racing also does not have a rich tradition of flipping guys over in retaliation for other incidents on the track – particularly ones in which the driver who is doling out the punishment is, from what video evidence confirms, responsible for causing the initial wreck in the first place. That’s what tracks like North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, the old Richmond Fairgrounds, or the next oval on the schedule – Bristol Motor Speedway – exist for. If you had a grievance, you’d settle it at 100 mph, not at speeds approaching 200 on a superspeedway where somebody – driver or fan – could get seriously injured or killed.
There is also nothing in the storied history of stock car racing that celebrates or rewards intentionally wrecking somebody at speeds nearing the double-century mark. If this is allegedly “getting back to our roots,” then maybe at Bristol in two weeks, all of the cars should be stocked full of some sort of illicit controlled substance, the 250-mile race run through the hills of eastern Tennessee with federal law enforcement in hot pursuit.
(Ehhh … on second thought, maybe that’s a bad example. Because that would be pretty badass. I would totally DV-R that.)
Anyways, what was even more disturbing Sunday is the distinct lack of remorse and utter contempt that Edwards displayed following the incident, as he did not complete his lap after being black-flagged; rather, he turned across the legends track on the frontstretch, then drove backwards up pit road en route to the garage area. During his interviews, he never apologized for his actions, only offering little more than a passing gesture of relief that Keselowski wasn’t ground into kielbasa against the pavement. Later that evening, he posted on his Facebook page the options he felt presented with for dealing with the earlier incident: letting it go, confronting Keselowski after the race, dealing with it in two weeks at Bristol, or taking care of it right then. Well, he sure chose to take care of it all right; and in the process, he put a lot of people’s lives in jeopardy. It’d be one thing if his car was totaled at the hands of the No. 12 to begin with; but remember, Keselowski’s flip was in large part because Edwards pulled into somebody else’s lane a couple hours earlier.
Which, in turn, begs the question… what did Carl Edwards really have to retaliate for?
Going back to Talladega’s near-disaster in April of 2009, it was Edwards who set into action the chain of events that would see him turned backwards, ricocheting off of Ryan Newman’s windshield and flying into the stands – shattering a young girl’s jaw in the process – after driving across the nose of Keselowski’s No. 09 Chevrolet in an attempt to block him from passing as the cars raced towards the checkered flag.
Edwards’ spectacular flight into the catch fence and arrestor cables was shocking indeed, eerily reminiscent of Bobby Allison’s 1987 liftoff at virtually the same spot on the track. Yet the incident that served as the catalyst for Edwards’ retaliation during the Kobalt Tools 500 was the result of much the same action on the part of the No. 99 – driving down from a lane up across the nose of another car. Edwards did not have position on the No. 12 Mopar Dodge, and was not even remotely clear of him before steering down into his path.
As Keselowski said himself, it is not the responsibility of the driver on the inside to yank their car down onto the apron or slam on the brakes to avoid Carl’s aggressive moves early in a race… let alone on a restart. From the replay, Bobby Labonte in the red No. 71 car quickly advances towards the back of Keselowski, showing the driver had lifted in an attempt to give Edwards some space once it was clear he was coming down whether Keselowski liked it or not. It was not a case of the Cup “rookie” driving aggressively that caused the incident – it was Edwards’ blatant disregard for others in his path.
Sadly, it isn’t the first time we could say that about Edwards. Think back to the 2006 Nationwide Race at Michigan International Speedway. In a last lap shootout between Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Robby Gordon, and Edwards, it was the latter who drifted up in front of Earnhardt, Jr., who attempted to lift but made ever so slight contact with the No. 60 of Edwards, sending him spinning. On the cool down lap, Carl went Cole Trickle and slammed into the side of Earnhardt Jr.’s car while he had his hand out the window. Afterward, he confronted him in Victory Lane and grabbed Earnhardt’s firesuit, unhappy with his explanation of that tragic last-lap maneuver. At Charlotte last fall, he got into a garage tussle and choking match with Kevin Harvick after Harvick poked fun of him at Talladega one week earlier.
Then there’s perhaps the worst of all: Martinsville, Fall of 2007. Edwards confronted Matt Kenseth prior to a TV interview, grabbing him and walking him backwards before cocking his fist back as if he was going to punch the former champion. Back then, his teammates past and present were taking issue with his wild mood swings, a private matter that suddenly went public after what nearly turned into a five-second sucker punch that day.
“You don’t know what to expect with him,” Kenseth said, a sentiment that was later echoed by teammate Greg Biffle – as well as then-teammate Jamie McMurray. “One minute, he has so much respect for you, and he’s real friendly and everything’s so much fun. The next minute, he wants to kick your butt and he’s swearing at you. It’s a little scary.”
Also in 2007, former Roush Fenway driver Kurt Busch, who won Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, reiterated those same feelings. “He is ‘The Carl,’” said Busch, who drove for Roush Fenway from 2000-05. “He seems to not be getting along with some of the other drivers that are over there. I’ve seen it all along with him. He’ll give you that flashy smile, but at the same time he’s got something underneath his breath for you. Now it’s just starting to appear.”
That was readily apparent to anybody who tuned in Sunday, seeing him accept partial responsibility for the initial lap 41 incident with Keselowski only to get back out on the track 156 laps later in a Mad Max-fueled moment, taking multiple swipes at Keselowski before landing the knockout blow.
Taking this documented history into account, it appears Carl “The Enforcer” Edwards has had beef with quite a few people within the garage area – both on his own team and beyond. So what is perhaps most disturbing about this punishment and the failure of NASCAR to issue any sort of meaningful disciplinary measures is that it gives the appearance that they have surrendered all control and authority, letting drivers dictate the rules on the track. By most measures, the guards have turned their backs, and the inmates are running the asylum.
Earlier this year, the decree was, “the gloves are off!” with NASCAR taking a less heavy-handed approach when dealing with the competition side of things concerning the drivers and teams. But getting back to the basics of stock car racing and letting the business end of the sport be handled on the track is in danger of taking a back seat to any semblance of order or sanity with this slap of Edwards’ wrist.
Say what you will about Keselowski’s actions in the Nationwide Series, or some incidents with other drivers – letting him flip with no repercussions sets a dangerous precedent going forward. It essentially states that anything goes, and the eye-for-an-eye mantra of retribution will be tolerated, even if it costs a fan an eye, limb, mobility, or their life.
Mind you, that is not hyperbole run amok, or writing something shocking to garner a few hits or a headline. If this “Boys Will Be Boys” mentality is allowed to prevail, something very bad will happen, as there is now a history of little to no consequences being issued for action doled out on the track.
What happened at Atlanta very well could have ended much worse than it did. Had the No. 12 not contacted the SAFER Barrier at the precise angle it struck the pavement, Brad Keselowski’s brain would have been little more than warm applesauce Sunday. Along those lines, it was particularly disturbing during Tuesday’s episode of ESPN’S NASCAR Now to hear columnist Ed Hinton shamelessly brush off any assertion that fans were endangered in anyway by the flight of the StratoCharger since it landed well short of the fence. Um… it would have only taken a slightly different angle for him to have crested that wall, and the fence at Atlanta Motor Speedway is not as robust as the one separating spectators from stock cars in Talladega.
From my vantage point, the impression given here is that NASCAR, so desperate for ratings, publicity, and to reignite interest in the sport, has catered to the lowest common denominator, effectively devaluing the highest level of auto racing in America to WWE status. I guess it is not completely coincidental, seeing as Edwards hosted an episode of the wrestling program Raw a few weeks ago.
But by not issuing any sort of meaningful punishment to Edwards, NASCAR has sacrificed driver protocol, fan safety, and the integrity of competition. The sanctioning body has now not only given their blessing that anything goes on the track; now, they’ve said that the worst a driver can expect by punting somebody airborne is that they’ll simply be “scrutinized” for a few weeks until all is right in the world again.
Back in 2002, Mark Martin was fined 25 points at Rockingham in the midst of a title fight with Tony Stewart for having a spring that was received short from the supplier, a glitch which caused the car to be a smidge low in post-race inspection. Following the fine, Mark made the statement that he felt like he, “had been given the death penalty for shoplifting.” By sentencing Edwards to what amounts to three weeks of being looked at, and presumably, not flipping anybody into the air, NASCAR has given him a high-five for assault and battery.
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