Brad Keselowski’s car was still sliding on its roof when the first email screaming at Carl Edwards landed in my inbox. Like a bounty of fireworks, fans exploded with all sorts of colorful wording, and I’m sure if you searched my Yahoo! account this morning typing in swears would send you more results than any other words in the English language.
Before we get going, let’s do a little housecleaning. Full disclosure: I’m in one of the more unique positions within the NASCAR media on this subject. My current driver diary on SI is with Keselowski, who replaced none other than Carl himself. When you work with someone like that on a personal level, especially in Carl’s case, it’s hard not to get to know them off the track. That makes it a fine line for me to draw, with personal ties that bind always leading to a trickier analysis.
Next in this three-step process (I promise, we’ll get to the good stuff!), let’s get the facts out of the way for anyone living under a rock Sunday. On lap 41 of the Cup race at Atlanta, Edwards and Keselowski entered the turn fighting for position. Edwards thought he had Keselowski cleared, and moved to the bottom only for Keselowski to tap his left-rear bumper.
A wreck ensued, with Keselowski continuing on unharmed while Edwards landed smack in the outside wall – sophomore Joey Logano winning “Best Supporting Actor In A Wreck” as his day got ruined by the mess. After seeing the replay, in public Edwards was gracious at first.
“I really thought it was his fault, but it really doesn’t look like it was as malicious as I thought,” he said, although he added, “Brad never gives me any room.”
“I was underneath him, tried to cut him a break but it was too late, he turned down,” said Keselowski later. “I apologized to him, but there’s nothing more you can do in that situation.”
Turns out for both men, a simple “sorry” wouldn’t be enough on this day. 150 laps’ worth of watching his car get fixed was enough to sour Edwards’s mood, and with three laps to go he found himself sitting there with a chance at payback. Keselowski, now sixth and headed towards a career-best day at Penske, passed his ailing car coming off turn 4 and heading down the front straightaway. There was one second for Edwards to bump and run, one of those life-changing, do-or-die moments you can’t take back.
The No. 99 pulled the trigger, and just like that the No. 12 was off to the catchfence, shockingly flipping before hitting the wall upside down to the shock of, well, pretty much everyone. The harrowing video was eerily reminiscent of the flip Carl endured at the hands of Brad at Talladega last April – you would just never expect it at an unrestricted track, even one with the speeds they carry at Atlanta.
But that’s another story for another day. A feud is what we’re talking about, and the second that car came to rest one was officially born. Brad was OK, but immediately used his Oscar post-race speech to immediately point NASCAR in the direction of disciplining Carl.
“To come back and intentionally wreck someone, that’s not cool,” said Keselowski. “He could have killed someone in the grandstands. And I know it’s a little ironic he’s got me saying that, but at least I didn’t do it intentionally (at Talladega, Kes was fighting for the win).”
Yet for those looking for additional penalties, that’s step 3 of 3; and a lot of you might be sorely disappointed. I don’t have a definite answer, but the school of thought in NASCAR-land after several off-the-record conversations is it looks like any suspension is a longshot at best. No, I wasn’t in the meeting, but I know enough from enough people to put the pieces together and tell you anything beyond a monetary fine would be a big surprise. The answer is expected sometime early this week.
“We talked with Carl after the race and we have an understanding about it, and we will talk internally again as a group Monday or Tuesday,” is the official NASCAR word from VP of Competition Robin Pemberton. “And make any decision on if there will be any other actions that we will take.”
So, we’ll have to wait and see, but if I’m a betting man I’d say it’s 95/5 Carl’s racing March 21 at Bristol, Tenn. And honestly?
I think that’s fair.
Continuing with the rule of three, I go back to the school of thought I originally posted on SI. We’ll expand upon them here.
One: NASCAR must live up to its policies
In the middle of January, we all sat and watched Brian France mouth the words fans have been waiting on for years: We’ll let the drivers police themselves. No more bump-drafting police, sure, but most importantly no crazy points penalties, fines or suspensions for drivers being their aggressive selves on the track. Of course, no one thought the policy would be tested so quickly, with an ill-timed tap leading to one of the scarier flips in recent memory.
But a policy is a policy nonetheless. If you’re letting drivers handle payback themselves, a wreck is going to be a wreck no matter whether it’s a simple 360 or one where the car goes upside down. How can that policy be effective where you’re picking and choosing where it’s enforced? We complain all the time about NASCAR’s inconsistency, yet by asking for a penalty on Edwards you’re expecting them to start the season off inconsistent. How fast is too fast? Which leads me to point number two….
Two: The argument that Carl should spin Brad at Bristol, not Atlanta, just doesn’t hold up
So often, we hear everyone refer to Bristol and Martinsville as if they’re the only two tracks on the circuit where you can spin someone out and not seriously hurt them. Well, here’s a news flash: anytime you strap into a car, as a race driver you put your life on the line. Think about how Logano’s car flipped over at Dover, a 1-mile concrete oval. Think about the tragedies we endured with Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, stuck throttles at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Think about the 3-4 deaths we hear about per year at local short tracks across the country.
It’s a horrible thing, but risk is just part of it every time you strap into a racecar. You hope and pray that everything is safe, but you just never know. Denny Hamlin, for example, could have hit Keselowski at the wrong time in the wrong place at Homestead, sending the No. 88 hard into the wall and seriously injuring him. Do higher speeds increase the risk? Yes. But the risk is there nonetheless the second you start driving the cars in circles… so you’re either going to allow retaliation or clamp down on it like you’re the riot police. There’s just one problem with that…
Three: You’re never going to stop drivers from retaliating on the racetrack
Let’s push any NASCAR rules, regulations, etc. aside for a second. The thing that gets me is how many fans have emailed me as if this wreck is the first time anybody’s ever gone after someone else on the racetrack. Um, have you been living under a rock? I know this sport’s gotten politically correct the last few years, but I didn’t think things were that bad people had actually forgotten how things usually work in racing.
1) Driver “A” makes a mistake and takes out Driver “B.”
2) Driver “B” either forgives Driver “A” or, if Driver “A” has crossed him in the past (or if he’s having a particularly bad day), he waits for the right opportunity to enact revenge on said driver.
It’s not rocket science. It’s called simple human emotion and it’s not like an ignition switch in the car – people can’t turn it off. These drivers are the best in the world because they’re innately competitive, and there’s always going to be conflicts that end in bad blood. Whether it’s morally acceptable or not doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to happen.
So what do you do? Do you castrate your drivers, keeping them from showing any emotion and making them so scared of disciplinary action they run single-file, afraid to take any risks, or do you let the drivers be themselves, understanding all 43 of them signed on the dotted line to be a part of a sport they love?
I’d go with answer B, personally. And that’s why I think we need to move on from this incident. No one would be talking about it to this degree if the cars didn’t flip. Yes, Carl was 156 laps down. Yes, he could have done his payback more tactfully. But it’s not like Brad is guiltless through the years, either. Note Juan Pablo Montoya’s public comments, and I know of several drivers who have stated off the record they feel the same way.
I like Carl. I like Brad. They’re both great people. Like a sad parent, I hate that they’re fighting. But I also feel like you can’t take the “race” out of the “racer.” Suspending Carl would be equivalent to doing that for not just him but 42 other drivers who now have to wonder where to draw the line when competing against others on the racetrack. And isn’t that mentality one we want to get rid of?
So let’s all say a prayer nothing bad happened, chalk this up as a racing deal and move on. And I just have a feeling these two will figure out their differences over the next couple of weeks. Because when you’re two grownups, sometimes you don’t need Big Brother to work everything out.
By NASCAR’s actions the beginning of the year, they seemed to indicate they understood that. Let’s just hope they follow through.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.