Last night I was watching NASCAR Race Hub with host Steve Byrnes, who doubles as a pit reporter for FOX during their race broadcasts. Because of his connections, he was able to score the venerable Darrell Waltrip as a guest on his show, and D.W. gave his opinions on a couple of issues relating to the sport.
Until recently, Waltrip had not been an outspoken opponent of the Debris Caution for the Sprint Cup, but of late he’s come around to the general view of a large contingent of fans. After Byrnes put out the Richard Petty quote about his winning championships under four different points systems, D.W. reacted to that oft-repeated observation and dared to disagree with the King. He pointed out that no matter what system Petty won under, all the races counted. He also made the point that while before Richmond, Clint Bowyer was behind by 500 points, now he’s behind by 60. D.W. voiced his distaste for giving something to someone who didn’t earn it.
Which, basically, is what opponents of the Chase have been saying all along. Rocket science it’s not.
Waltrip also spoke at length about the effect of “have at it, boys” on the racing this season. He compared what happened in Atlanta with Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski with what happened recently between Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman at the same track. The former, he stated, was definitely not NASCAR’s intent, while the latter was more what they were talking about.
I doubt Robin Pemberton had any idea how much his simple four-word policy declaration would become a catchphrase repeated ad nauseum relating to any on-track incident this season. When Edwards flipped Keselowski in Atlanta, folks questioned whether NASCAR would abandon its “have at it, boys” policy. When Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth went at it in Martinsville, commentators talked about how “have at it, boys” had made the racing so much more exciting. And so on. (Pemberton should have trademarked the phrase, the way Pat Riley did with “three-peat”.)
Racing is a very intense and grueling sport. Every driver gets angry when they’re wrecked by another driver, even though I’d guess that at least 90% of wrecks are unintentional. And that’s the least of it. The competition at this level creates a bigger pressure-cooker than any of us can understand. Drivers know that their standing in the sport is only as good as next week’s finish, especially in lean economic times. That’s enough to worry about without the inherent danger of an unskilled driver just inches behind them at 190 MPH.
A driver who wants to get to the big leagues and stay there can’t let other drivers run over him, and Carl Edwards had a moment in Atlanta where the mentality that is bred in drivers took over. Does anyone think that it would have made a difference to Edwards that day if he thought NASCAR would have parked him for a race for his actions? It’s not like NASCAR has a history of going that far anyway, even in the days of supposed driver muzzling. If turning another driver on pit road didn’t merit that kind of punishment, what does?
A driver going back out onto the track to exact revenge on another driver who had just wrecked him is going to do it whether NASCAR is going to come down on him or not.
Because of Carl Edwards’s actions in Atlanta and the ensuing reaction, drivers now know that there is a place to get revenge, and that place isn’t on a straightaway at a speedway.
Kasey Kahne probably understood that and didn’t go overboard going after Newman. Or maybe Kahne is a gentleman and didn’t want a bad reputation. Or since the two drivers are friends, Kahne only wanted to let Newman know he was upset with him. There could have been a lot of reasons for Kahne turning Newman without flipping his car. I doubt “have at it, boys” was his motivation.
Does anyone think that “have at it, boys” has added to the thrill of racing at Martinsville or Bristol? The whole appeal of those places is that drivers have at it there constantly. Name the driver—Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, anyone—and chances are they’ve either really teed someone off or been seriously teed off by someone at Thunder Valley or the Paper Clip. This probably applies to Talladega and Daytona too, but most drivers accept that no one can be perfect for 500 miles of restrictor plate racing.
The reason there was more of drivers roughing each other up and tempers flaring in the old days that people yearn for is because there were more short track events, and the small amount of real estate to fight over made for more fighting over real estate. It wasn’t because NASCAR didn’t rein drivers in on occasion. If half of the races took place at half-mile or three-quarter mile tracks, there wouldn’t have been a need to say “have at it, boys”.
Fox Sports’s Jeff Hammond excoriated media types after the Atlanta event for their hypocrisy in saying the sport needs more excitement, but that it needed to come down on Edwards for Atlanta. I’m not sure Hammond entirely got the point. With more speedways on the schedule, there are more chances to send another driver flying if you’re angry enough. And whatever a columnist’s opinion, they’re going to have a reaction to that.
“Have at it, boys” is an attempt to address a deep-rooted problem with a simple and inexpensive solution. NASCAR probably meant well, and it was and is difficult to take their hands off legislatively in a sport that can be lethal, but the change of policy is more symbolic than anything else. It may have made for some more YouTube moments, but improving the racing? Creating a buzz? Bringing back alienated fans? I doubt it.
Drivers are going to get angry with each other and occasionally wreck each other on purpose. Or they’ll get into shoving matches afterward. Or they’ll blast each other in post-wreck interviews. That isn’t anything new, nor was the sport lacking it in recent years. Did anyone think that when Joey Logano went after Kevin Harvick at Pocono, things were any different than they had been?
When good old road rage boils over, it’s not going to make a difference whether NASCAR penalizes drivers for it.
* I probably shouldn’t reveal the inner workings in the machinery that is the Frontstretch, but what the h, Matt McLaughlin did enough yesterday. Our editor Tom Bowles put out feelers asking someone—anyone—to write something positive about the Chase format. No takers. You could say there’s no diversity of opinion on the Frontstretch, but that isn’t true at all. We’re just not that good at marketing.
* Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never seen less enthusiasm for NASCAR’s playoff. Even the people selling it seem like their heart isn’t in it. Maybe it’s that it was already more or less set before Richmond. Or maybe people are just used to it.
* My prediction for the Chase? If the No. 48 doesn’t take consecutive title No. 5, look for the champ to be the guy that DNFs the least.
“Contact Kurt Smith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14363/