NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Edwards & Busch… Like Mayfield & Earnhardt

The bump-and-run maneuver – as demonstrated by Carl Edwards Saturday night in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol to gain the win – is without a doubt the sorriest, most low-rent passing tactic in the book. The maneuver requires very little skill, but lots of brashness coupled with minimal regard for sportsmanship. However, for only the second time in over 40 years of following the sport of stock car racing, I applaud the culprit and simply write it off as poetic justice.

Edwards’s move on Kyle Busch – in which his rival was sent up the track while the No. 99 streaked into the lead – is “race ‘em like they race me,” “tit for tat,” “live by the sword, die by the sword” and “just reward” all rolled up into one neatly wrapped package. There is no doubt that Edwards wanted to win the race. However, the fact that the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota was in front certainly played a huge part in his decision-making process as to what is and isn’t appropriate in attempting to take the lead. You can bet had a well-respected Mark Martin or Jeff Burton been ahead of him, Edwards would have finished second or won a hard-fought victory with a daring side-by-side pass, at most possibly exchanging a smattering of door paint with his adversary.

In other words… he would have used good, hard and clean racing instead!

But of course, it wasn’t a driver with a squeaky clean reputation that Edwards needed to pass to secure a victory – but a driver known for doing whatever it takes to win, sportsmanship be damned. This was something that Edwards knew firsthand and even considered before choosing to seal Busch’s fate.

“I just had to look at his back bumper and decide, ‘Would he do this to me?'” Edwards said in the quote heard round the NASCAR world. “He did it to me before, so it was real simple…”

“I’d do it again.”

It was a bold, confident statement in which Edwards refused to back down… similar to the only other instance that the bump-and-run maneuver has met with my approval in the Cup Series. That came in May of 2000 at Pocono, when Jeremy Mayfield – then driving the No. 12 for Penske Racing South – put the “chrome horn” to the back bumper of race leader and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt in the famed black No. 3 Chevrolet on the final lap. Mayfield went on to win the race that day, while Earnhardt had two more competitors pass underneath him, falling to fourth by the time the checkered flag flew.

Neither Busch following Saturday night’s “dumping” nor Earnhardt more than eight years ago was pleased with their respective competitor for the “cheap shot” that snatched victory from them. Likewise, neither Mayfield nor Edwards showed any remorse for their questionable racing ethics and in both cases seemed to have at least the tacit support of other peers in the garage.

For example, following Mayfield’s victory Earnhardt – obviously irate at the audacity of the junior driver – drove alongside him and gave him the old “you’re number one” finger wave. But Earnhardt soon learned that a large number of drivers and team members along pit road were applauding the young upstart and flashing him the “thumbs up,” signaling their support for his decision as he made his way to victory lane. Mayfield later sarcastically and unapologetically explained the race-winning pass by stating, “I just wanted to rattle his [Earnhardt’s] cage…” and just like that, there was nothing the seven-time champ could do.

Similar to the way Earnhardt reacted then, the 23-year-old Busch – displeased with Edwards for his aggressive driving — showed his displeasure Saturday night by hitting Edwards’s No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford on the cool-down lap. Both frustrated and focused on revenge, the points leader vowed shortly thereafter that “we’ll race him like that in the Chase if that’s what he wants.”

But that’s somewhat of a hollow threat on Busch’s part, as in Edwards’s opinion, that’s been how the young Las Vegas native has been racing all along – from time to time crossing the fuzzy line between aggression and over-aggression. It’s left Edwards satisfied with the ultimate outcome of Saturday night’s event, looking towards the future instead of reflecting on the past.

“Let me make one thing clear,” he said once the race was over. “I’m not apologizing for it, and that’s the way it is.”

So, what Edwards served up at the Sharpie 500 – just like what Mayfield dished out at the Pocono 500 – was nothing more than giving a competitor “a taste of his own medicine.” And it is only coincidental that the elixir of choice in both happened to be the bump-and-run. Drivers have numerous ways both on and off the track of exacting revenge and sending a message of displeasure with a fellow driver’s past actions; but certainly, snatching a victory from them using the deplorable passing tactic is a message that is sent loud and clear.

BOWLES: THE EDWARDS/BUSCH RIVALRY GAINS STEAM

Considering this impact, why more drivers will not do what Mayfield or Edwards understood should be done is puzzling. As long as a driver such as Busch believes that the rewards for overly aggressive driving far outweigh the consequences, there is little reason for them to rethink their on-track demeanor and pass competitors… not drive through them.

Take the aforementioned Earnhardt as an example. The man is without question one of the most talented drivers in the 60-year history of NASCAR, of a raw natural talent that would have set him apart from the pack had he not stooped to the use of what became known as the “patented Earnhardt move,” pushing a driver up the track to take a position away. He used the maneuver frequently on short tracks, but had no qualms of employing it on a superspeedway as well. His willingness to utilize the bump-and-run gained him far more wins than losses as a result of retaliation from competitors for his misdeeds.

Like Earnhardt, Busch races to win, and more often than not wins fair and square – executing skillful passes and simply outrunning the rest of the field. But unlike the majority of his peers Busch, like Earnhardt before him, has very little hesitation to “steal” a win – and he will continue to do so as long as the rewards overshadow the risks. Of course, Busch has taken great equipment and his phenomenal abilities to new heights in NASCAR this season. But along the way, he has left some competitors in the sanctioning body’s three top series questioning, like Edwards, just how much they are going to take as Busch steamrolls through the record books.

In truth, this isn’t just about Busch slamming Edwards at Richmond during the May Nationwide event – it is about numerous instances involving a growing list of big name drivers, as well as up-and-comers that have been victims of this man’s “win at all cost” approach to stock car racing. Winning is always the goal; but Busch’s victories sometimes fail to stay within the bounds of respect for the sport and fellow competitors.

And that makes him vulnerable to some sort of retaliation – although unlike Busch himself, the driver who did it didn’t confuse rough driving with a lack of off-track respect. There was no blustering and posturing on either Mayfield’s part at Pocono in 2000 or from Edwards at Bristol once the race was over. They simply raced the driver in front them as they had been raced by that driver, and let the consequences fall as they may. In both cases, the bump-and-run – as dastardly a maneuver as it is – had become appropriate and justified.

Still, the burning question for me, as it was in 2000, is this: What took so long for a driver to step up and do what needs to be done?

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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