It’s a facet of life we learn early and often, from the moment we’re introduced to the seriousness of war to the second we see Superman do battle with Lex Luthor to keep the Earth safe: the basic principle of Good vs Evil. Nowhere is that philosophy more readily applied than in the arena of professional sports – the humanization of athletes is the core through which fans wrap their sporting loyalties around. People like to love – and love to hate; but most of all, they love to feel.
It’s the type of attachment that NASCAR has been struggling to generate at times this year – until now.
Truth be told, the last 20 laps of Nextel Cup’s annual visit to the Glen was filled with enough raw emotion to fill a two-hour Lifetime movie – a refreshing break from the wave of political correctness and sponsor soliloquies that have defined the sport over the past few years. But while Jeff Gordon‘s fall from grace and Matt Kenseth‘s comedic interlude with a crazed fan were some of the more notable experiences on the afternoon, nothing compared to the in-your-face screamfest turned shoving match in the center of turn 1. There, Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya worked out some personal differences in the most public of settings, all while their cars leaked out fluids and the frustration of missed opportunity behind a wreck neither one appeared to be at fault for starting.
In truth, it was the No. 1 car of Martin Truex Jr. which led to both drivers being innocent victims – his bump of Montoya’s car on lap 73 sent the No. 42 head-on into traffic, where it was clobbered by Jeff Burton, Harvick, and several others. But to Harvick, whether Montoya committed the crime was merely an afterthought – simply being at the scene was enough to convict him. Too much history with Montoya on the race track – and not all of it positive – had him more than eager to come to blows with a man he felt ruined his day.
“I guess the No. 1 ran over the No. 42,” he said, admitting fact before devolving into opinion. “But I just hate it. I’m frustrated with the No. 42 [Montoya]. It just seems like he runs over somebody every week.”
After the wreck, Harvick was dead set on doing some running over of his own. Jumping out of his race car as Montoya disembarked from his, he began a conversation with the rookie about his style – filled with plenty of expletives to boot. Trading barbs back and forth soon turned into trading shoves, and the two needed to be separated by track officials before things got much worse. Much to the delight of the crowd, the polite control switch had been turned off in both of their brains – leaving raw emotion ready to be released amongst the masses.
“He got out of the car, came out disrespectful, saying all kinds of things, grabbed me, and I don’t appreciate that,” Montoya said of Harvick’s reaction. “I race very clean. I give people space, and if you are not going to respect me, I am not going to respect them either. It’s pretty disappointing to see a guy like that do such a thing.”
“I went to Kevin and said ‘It wasn’t my fault. I got hit from behind.’ He started shouting and grabbing me, and I don’t appreciate that. If it was my fault I would have gone and said, ‘It was my fault.’ I have a little respect for the guy, well, I used to have a little respect for the guy.”
When asked what the two discussed, Harvick was blunt and to the point:
“We talked about kicking his ass, because that’s what I felt like doing.”
Intervention kept it short of going that far, but the words pierced like a knife – it was clear that Montoya and Harvick were not big fans of each other anymore, at least on this day. Having already been involved in a wreck with Montoya at Daytona one month earlier, Harvick had been none too pleased with the Colombian’s driving ever since – and this wreck provided an opening for him to vent his frustration.
In the end, Stewart won the race – but the buzz from the stands could tell you that hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things. Just like in the 1979 Daytona 500 – where Richard Petty won while Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough fought on the backstretch – all people had at the front of their minds was the confrontation of the year.
“I’ve got to stick with my guy,” said car owner Chip Ganassi when asked the dreaded what if Harvick and Montoya didn’t get broken apart. “You aren’t allowed to bet on your own team. I don’t want to end up like Pete Rose betting on my own team but I would have bet on my guy.”
Harvick wasn’t the only supposed Montoya victim once the race was complete – Jimmie Johnson was none too happy either after making contact with the Colombian early in the race, and getting the short end of the stick.
“I have to admit, when he dumped me, I was furious,” said Johnson, who came back to finish third. “Here we are minding our business, running along out there, and the guy never gets inside of me and just runs me over to get position. And it’s unfortunate he gets his chance to run well on these road courses, and he takes advantage of it and starts laying the bumper to everybody.”
Of course, such talk leaves Montoya in the dubious position of being labeled the bad guy. Perhaps that’s unfair; and in fact, maybe you believe differently, that Harvick was the hothead that misread a crash while letting his temper getting the best of him.
Either way, it’s doubtless you have an opinion, a topic to talk about at the office cooler the next morning. Now, it’s up to the sanctioning body to take notice; doubtless, fines will come of this, but points penalties? I’d hope not. 30 seconds of passion did more for the sport’s popularity than 30 minutes of post-race “I want to thank my sponsor” speeches combined. And that’s the way it should be; throwing the curtain aside, both Montoya and Harvick forgot who they were and what they were supposed to stand for and let their true personalities out for everyone to see.
If only that was the case for every driver, every week.