NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Sometimes, NASCAR Needs to Be the Bad Guy

Though most sports would be happy to enjoy the ratings that NASCAR does, the powers that be recognize that they’re in a decline, and have been taking some unusual measures to stop the bleeding. Until recently, NASCAR had never consulted the drivers, media, and fans to help them fix waning interest. For any sport to reach out so much for ideas is rare, but it’s even more unheard of for NASCAR.

Not so anymore; instead, the sport’s leadership is going out of their way to say “we’re listening.” Recent ad campaigns have focused on consistent start times and letting drivers take off the gloves. They’ve lifted the gray areas on bump-drafting. Double-file restarts are trumpeted as the new catalyst for exciting on track battles. At the end of races, the announcers excitedly explain the new rules that are used to ensure a green-flag finish.

You could argue that they deserve some credit for listening to fans’ suggestions. This writer is very, very happy about the start times. But I don’t think NASCAR or the fans were counting on Brad Keselowski’s car pirouetting and crushing its roof in a frightening wreck, just four races into a season where the very rivalry mentality they had been encouraging was the root cause of the crash.

It’s easy to blame Carl Edwards in hindsight, but it’s likely he didn’t intend to send Keselowski airborne. And NASCAR may have had a pang of “uh-oh” after promoting driver cage matches, although the Edwards penalty didn’t reflect that. It turns out that “have at it, boys” may not be the wisest thing to say to “boys” who pilot 3,400-pound cages of steel inches from each other at 190 mph.

It doesn’t serve the sport well for a wronged driver to get back out onto the track for no other reason than to take his antagonist out of the race, but it’s understandable. In the scene in Days of Thunder where Tom Cruise’s character gets new tires on his car after the race to exact revenge on the winner who wrecked him, of course you’re rooting for him. When Edwards was taken out of the race, it didn’t look like it was intentional, but Keselowski has a reputation for all-out aggression, and Edwards said as much before getting back out on the track with nothing but revenge on his mind.

Carl’s “Eddie Haskell of NASCAR” reputation notwithstanding, the most gentlemanly drivers in the sport have given in to road rage at times. Some years ago Dale Jarrett – yes, that Dale Jarrett – got back out onto the track at Bristol after his race was ended by Ryan Newman, and Jarrett went after Newman and returned the favor. And you could say that is one of the reasons people love Bristol.

In happens in sports. In baseball, on occasion a batter will be hit by a pitch that looks intentional, and the umpire will let it go. Then the other team retaliates by throwing at a batter of equal stature, the umpire warns both teams and it ends there – usually. Sometimes the situation gets out of control, and while this may fire up the fans, the umpires and the league have to restrain it before pitchers start throwing at heads.

NASCAR is in a quandary here. Passion and emotion and blown fuses, pushing and shoving and giving no quarter, all of that gives us in the media something to write about and fans a reason to click on websites. Fights are part of what sells hockey. Crushing hits are part of what sells football. The violence, kept to a certain level, appeals to a part of us that gets tired of taking crap from the world. But no matter how much the fans and media enjoy that, the sanctioning body sometimes has to be the killjoy that keeps it from getting out of control. A Keselowski-Edwards conflict may attract some fans, but unlike in most sports, innocent bystanders can get caught up in it. And seeing Keselowski come out of the car looking that woozy was over the limit.

Keselowski’s Atlanta wreck was a reminder that racing is a life-threatening endeavor, and as entertaining as rivalries that involve intentional carnage may be, the outcome could be lethal. For all the clamoring for more head-butting on the track from fans and media, NASCAR would take the blame for not having averted a calamity. And rightly so.

The sport wasn’t just built on the fight in turn three. That was memorable, sure, one of the most memorable races in the sport’s history. One of the NHL’s most memorable games may be their nationally-televised brawl between the Red Wings and Avalanche some years ago. No doubt the Detroit crowd thoroughly enjoyed it. Hell, I did and I’m a Flyers fan.

Events like that stand out because they’re rare. If the Keselowski-Edwards skirmish we saw Sunday happened every week, the sport would be an absolute joke.

Some people watch the Ultimate Fighting bouts and even order them on pay-per-view, but it’s too over the top for me. If those guys are willing to get into an octagon and risk that kind of a beating, more power to them – when crazed nut-jobs fly planes into our buildings, I want guys like that on our side. But UFC is just too high on the unpleasant meter for me to consider it entertainment.

It may be part of the game, but fighting isn’t what hockey is all about, nor is throwing at batters what makes great baseball. And stock car drivers deliberately wrecking each other, while entertaining in a perverse way, isn’t racing.

NASCAR’s desire to please the fans is at least a step forward from the tone-deafness they had shown in recent years, and maybe to some extent the drivers should police themselves and establish respect. Just so long as NASCAR recognizes that they are the ones responsible for establishing a limit, however unpopular it may sometimes be. Because as \Edwards proved last Sunday, sometimes drivers don’t know their own limitations.

The probation for Edwards is acceptable, since neither he nor NASCAR anticipated the result of his actions. Hopefully, Carl and the rest of the drivers in the garage know better now what can happen. And hopefully, NASCAR informs both Carl and Brad that the intentional wrecking ends at this point – their marketing ideas be damned.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • A great many commentators have taken to blaming the wing for Keselowski’s Atlanta flight. No one dislikes the wing more than I do, but I’ve seen plenty of cars go airborne with the spoiler, particularly at plate tracks. If a car gets turned backwards at that speed, air gets underneath the car and it is likely to lift it. The wing probably doesn’t help, but the spoiler isn’t going to stop it from happening.
  • The big winner in all of this Edwards controversy was Goodyear, after a race where close to a dozen cars had serious tire issues. The affected cars included all of the entries from Hendrick Motorsports, who aren’t known for making mistakes when it comes to setups that abuse rubber. You’d have to think without that other little attention grabber, Goodyear would be taking some serious heat from Junior fans, who saw their hero finish 15th with the best car he’s had in two years.
  • Since Kevin Harvick wants the fines back that he paid, and Robby Gordon has questioned whether he would have been treated so lightly, I wonder if anyone has asked Carl Long what he thinks.
  • Does anyone know what happened to the GoDaddy sponsorship on the No. 5 car last week? The No. 5 just had the Hendrick logo on the hood. Did Mark Martin not agree to a racier commercial than he signed on for?

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