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Did You Notice? The Cost of Sacrificing a Sport Through 1 Man

Did You Notice? The selective way in which fans worry about driver aggression? I’ve been bombarded since Saturday night with emails over the Carl–Brad incident, to the point they make Dale Earnhardt Jr. look like a boy scout on the corner holding a giant No. 3 sign that says “Pay Attention To Me.” Through it all, the majority point the finger at Carl Edwards, notably upset at his actions considering Brad Keselowski is about as popular as the BP execs, LeBron in Cleveland and Tiger Woods at a feminist rally… combined. For fans to turn aside their own hatred, turning a man who was once NASCAR’s Most Despised into an innocent victim shows their utter disgust for how Edwards conducted the final five seconds of the race.

In the end, the fans’ opinion is supposedly what shapes the future of the sport. At 70% Team Brad, 30% Team Carl, you wonder if that’s going to force NASCAR to act in an era where the Fan Council is gaining more power at the bargaining table than Mike Helton. The chances of a fine and suspension in my view have clearly risen the past 24 hours because of you.

But at the same time, that’s what worries me. Because as much as the sport wouldn’t be here without their support, I don’t know if the fans have NASCAR’s best long-term interest in mind with this one. They’re acting out of passionate anger… but sometimes, acting with your heart clouds a decision you should be sitting back and making with your head.

Why? Because the number one argument in fans’ arsenal centers around one thing: danger. I’ve read more emails in the last few days claiming one driver was attempting to kill another than I have in my entire five-year career as a NASCAR professional. Reading some of them, you’d almost think people have called their local police to have Edwards arrested for murder.

Yes, the bump Edwards made on Keselowski was on his right-rear corner, the type of contact that hooks a car into the wall in a maneuver most people claim leave the victim defenseless. Yes, the move was made at a higher-speed portion of the racetrack that puts everyone at greater risk.

But murder? You’re accusing Carl Edwards of attempted murder? I’m sorry, boys and girls, but your memory must be short-circuiting. Because if NASCAR contact produced attempted murder, there’d be a whole lot of drivers in jail over the dozens of drivers tragically lost through the years. Just like there’d be a whole lot of boxers in jail for one fateful punch, a whole lot of football players for one ugly, paralyzing tackle… the list goes on and on.

You see, it doesn’t matter whether Edwards slams into the right-rear corner of someone down the straightaway or Jeff Gordon lightly taps Martin Truex Jr. going into the slowest turn on the circuit in Infineon. Contact is contact, and the second you change a stock car’s trajectory at as slow as 35 mph it can turn tragic. Sure, the chances of Truex’s turn 11 spin taking a turn for the worse were 0.0001% compared to Keselowski. But the bottom line is, the risk was there.

So let’s switch up this situation a bit. What if Kurt Busch’s nudge for the lead on Jimmie Johnson went a little too far at New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago? What if that small nudge caused Johnson to spin around, third-place Tony Stewart slams into Johnson at the wrong trajectory, and the four-time champ ends up hurt or worse? Should Busch be fined and suspended for going for the lead? Should he be jailed for first-degree assault?

The bottom line is in that situation, Busch and Johnson’s contact was universally accepted because both were trying to achieve the goal they were hired for: win the damn race. Not run for points or park after 50 laps – that’s been working really well to build our fan base, right? – but do the very thing that forms the concept of why they compete in the first place. So why is it not the same thing here? Because of the severity of the impact? That should make no difference, because the risk was still in play. Edwards never said he wanted to physically hurt Keselowski… he was trying to win the race. There’s a difference.

Remember Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001? Let’s not forget that didn’t result from the type of contact we saw on Saturday night. It came from the slightest touch between he and Sterling Marlin, two cars battling for position where Earnhardt’s crash looked half as ugly as the one we saw with Keselowski. But it was a tragic, tragic reminder that the second we bump fenders in this sport, death’s door could be waiting on the other end. It’s been the ugly part of racing since day one, and simple laws of physics tell us we’ll never completely erase it.

Speaking of Earnhardt, remember his wreck with Terry Labonte in 1999? In that wreck, the Intimidator spun Labonte out on the final lap, robbing him of a victory while sending him smack into harm’s way, in front of six or seven cars that slammed right into the No. 5. Earnhardt could very easily have gotten someone killed in that wreck, with boos showering down from the grandstand. Yet I don’t remember a fine or suspension issued by NASCAR; instead, while fans were upset with what they thought was a dirty move, they universally understood physical contact is part of the sport the same way punching someone is a part of boxing. Just like two men that enter that ring, everyone knows the inherent risk they take the second the bell – in this case, the green flag – lets them loose.

So why is everyone on their high horse now? I know three deaths in the last 11 years have a way of changing perspective, but with tragedy possible around every turn, how is that more or less relevant over this incident compared to any other? I think fans worried about safety should be asking themselves a different question: do they want a NASCAR where there’s never any rubbing of fenders, ever?

Because that’s the message these fans – and drivers – complaining about what Carl did are sending to me. Yeah, that’s right, even those Cup veterans bitching about this incident would be put between a rock and a hard place if NASCAR suspended Carl. Despite this incident’s severity, suddenly, “Have at it, boys” would be out the window, and we’d be back to the same type of gray area that caused Talladega to be a single-file parade over bump-drafting fears. Once again, contact would become a judgment call, a gray area over what’s acceptable and what’s not. And when drivers are trying to win the race, suddenly the possibility of being penalized will mentally creep back in the back of their heads when trying to make the type of physical maneuvers that typically leave no one wrecked – just a whole lot of cheering fans and the type of water-cooler talk that left NASCAR a grassroots sensation.

Look, I understand Edwards isn’t the most popular guy. He’s clearly had his share of run-ins with several drivers, including people on his own team. But don’t let your anger over the individual overshadow the concept of whether contact is acceptable in this sport. Because a vote for a serious Carl penalty is a vote that any type of physical contact no longer works; and folks, I’ve seen the attendance and reviews of what happens when we have a single-file parade with racing “clean.” That’s a sport whose future is unsustainable.

So just like in football, boxing and other sports we need to take a deep breath and understand the inherent risks involved. Punishing Carl here isn’t going to keep another driver from dying in the future; it just won’t. So take a good look in the mirror, and envision this sport without any type of physical contact (I’m NOT talking about wrecking here; I’m just talking about two cars battling, trying to make the pass) and tell me if you find that worth watching. If you do, great! But I think you’re in the minority. Two cars passing each other five feet apart is something we see on the highway every day. But two cars bumping fenders and smoking tires, a la Busch and Ricky Craven at Darlington several years ago is I think what the majority of fans really want. It’s two guys trying to win the race any way possible; and that comes with inherent risk. Whether tempers flare and a guy spins out, or if tempers don’t and accidental contact ensues could be the end of a life at any time.

The sooner everyone understands that, refraining from using Carl as a sacrifice so we feel like we’re preventing something that’s clearly unpreventable, the better. But I’m not optimistic.

Did You Notice? Not much space left this week, so just a few quick hits after that long rant…

  • Why is it that Cup drivers seem to have more fun racing during their off week, when they’re not in a stock car, then on Sundays? Let’s put it this way: NFL players don’t have more fun when they’re busy playing a playground flag football game on the side. That’s a red flag if I ever saw one.
  • Mark Martin’s last five finishes at Indianapolis: seventh, fifth, sixth, 11th, second. He’s done that with four different teams, in almost every type of circumstance imaginable: from being on the edges of the Chase bubble in ’05, to a bankruptcy/merger announcement the weekend of the race with Bobby Ginn in ’07, to a runner-up finish after winning the pole in his career year of ’09. So if he doesn’t score a top 10 at Indy, folks… man, maybe we should be concerned about him missing the Chase after all.
  • I see about 12 start-and-parkers listed for the Nationwide ORP race on Saturday night. And that’s a short track! I’m beginning to shudder at what the numbers could be like come September and October, as there are another four or five teams that are clearly running on fumes with money.

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