NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Kickin’ It Old School

The late-race antics between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick during Saturday night’s Sprint Cup event at Darlington might have made for water-cooler conversation and gigabytes of internet fodder, but they stole much of the attention away from the accomplishments of driver Regan Smith, crew chief Pete Rondeau, and the entire Furniture Row Racing team. Even though the minimally-sponsored No. 78 Chevrolet gets its horsepower from ECR (Earnhardt-Childress Racing) engines, the win was yet another ostrich plume in NASCAR’s cap for 2011. The first ten races of the Sprint Cup season have produced eight different winners, two of whom scored their first career victories in storied fashion at legendary racetracks in respected events.

Even the bumping-and-grinding of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch (who are the only repeat winners in the NSCS so far) added to the spring in NASCAR’s step; everyone might love a parade, but they love a fight even more.

There’s a fine line between aggression and anger, and an even finer line between managing that anger and allowing it to devolve into aggressive driving. Unless you were behind the wheel with – or inside the minds of – Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch during the race on Saturday night, all fans and analysts can do is speculate about who did what to whom. This allows us to take part in a great debate, but it also limits our involvement to playing games of “In my opinion….”. Perspective colored with bias turns what we saw into what we believe we saw, and often those beliefs are an extension of attitudes we already possess. If I think Kyle Busch slid across the track to hook the No. 29 Chevy, then I’m showing (on purpose or not) my emotional cards. Likewise, if I declare that Kevin Harvick was the target of Kyle’s retaliation and victimized on the restart following Jeff Burton’s blown motor, then again I’m providing a glimpse into how I really feel. Feelings are both natural and essential, but they do little when matched against reason.

Even seeing what we saw is an in-exact science. Someone watching a wreck or a bump-and-run from the grandstands in turn one will have a different perspective on the event than someone who saw the same scenario from the seats in turn three. A race official standing along pit road will have a different view of on-track activity than a spotter atop the press box. Fans watching on television have perhaps even a more difficult time assessing wrecks and passes; while we have the benefit of things like multiple cameras and instant replay, we’re also at the mercy of both the camera operators and the director who’s making choices regarding what to show and what to ignore. While a controversial wreck or pass will be given scrutiny by a director and be shown from every possible angle over-and-over again, the end result is still the same: we see what we believe we see.

Given all the aforementioned criteria, professional athletes might need to re-think their anger management/conflict resolution practices. In the dust-up at Darlington between Harvick and Busch, the “smart thinking” award goes to Busch and his No. 18 Toyota. Let’s review:

*Kevin Harvick:* Undoes belts, radio connections, hoses, and the like (but keeps the helmet) so as to approach the driver’s side window of Kyle Busch’s car.

*Kyle Busch:* remains in his car (with helmet on and motor running). As Harvick approaches to punch Busch’s ticket, Busch pulls forward, bumps the No. 29 Chevy out of his path into the inside, pit road retaining wall (more on this later), and drives away.

Such is the reasoning behind avoiding encounters with motorists prone to “road rage”/aggressive behaviors; ignoring the aggression and clearing the area as best as possible in a safe manner is often the most effective means of staying out of harm’s way. Kyle Busch had sheet metal, mobility, and an opportunity to assess what it seemed that Kevin Harvick was intending to do, whereas Kevin Harvick had to show his hand and do what he believed would be most effective at that point. Harvick had a limited time and a small area through which to physically articulate his dissatisfaction with Busch (and quite likely a limited field-of-view, what with his helmet and all).

As a life-long athletic supporter (huh?), I’ve often been curious about the logic behind emotional and physical outbursts by frustrated players. It’s like when a batter gets beaned and charges the mound during a baseball game. Why is it that the batter always drops his bat before running out to attack the pitcher? Shouldn’t you hang on to the bat as an added persuasive tool (it doesn’t mean you have to use it?) It seems like the same is true when NFL players take off their helmets before going after an opponent who’s wronged them. Don’t you want the added protection of a face-mask if you’re going angrily toe-to-toe with someone roughly the size of a soda machine? In the NHL, the players always drop their gloves before trying to drop another player, but I guess this makes sense since wearing hockey gloves seems akin to wearing a baseball mitt on each hand.

Penalties are leveled at players who use their sticks against an opponent, so maybe that explains the dropped baseball bat deal (come to think of it, using a bat on an opponent would lead to criminal charges). Hooking an opponent during a hockey game is deemed grounds for a trip to the penalty box, so…. Wait a minute! Isn’t this what Kyle Busch did to Kevin Harvick? Was it the other way around? Maybe that’s why so many NASCAR fans felt exhausted following the conclusion of Saturday’s race at Darlington. Just when you thought you were watching the Showtime Southern 500, it turned out that you were actually seeing the inaugural performance of the South Carolina Theater of the Absurd and their production of “Days of Blunder”.

Watching Busch’s No. 18 Toyota and Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet shucking-and-jiving along the frontstretch after the race was like something out of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars”. The only thing missing from FOX’s broadcast, at that point, was Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” playing in the background. Whether or not there was deliberate contact during those closing laps, and regardless of who “hooked” who following Clint Bowyer’s wild ride, the ensuing showdown on pit road was a selfish act. Yes, the drivers were frustrated. Yes, the drivers were angry. Yes, the drivers felt the other was to blame for all of their woes. Yes, it was a long end to what had been a long day. I understand that. My point (like similar points made by other pundits/writers/commentators/analysts following Saturday’s race) is that it’s on the racetrack is where careers are made and heroes are defined; if two (or more) drivers have “space” issues, they can wrestle over them on the asphalt (or concrete, as in the case of Dover this weekend) of battle. As long as it’s about advancing positions and one-upping the competitor who’s done you wrong, good.

Beat, bang, push, and shove all you want out there to out-drive the competition, on the racetrack where sheet metal, roll cages, SAFER barriers and catch fences offer some protection and confinement.

Pit road is another story. Yes, cars can (and do) hit the retaining walls there, but if it’s during the event, crews and media types are conscious of the dangers and the possibilities. Everyone is engaged in the race and on high alert. Pit road after an event is different. Crew members tend to have three primary goals following a race. If they’re not heading to victory lane to celebrate their win, then they’re focused on: 1) clearing out their pit stalls, 2) loading their haulers, and 3) heading for home. Pit road becomes a work area for people, not a throughway for banged-up race cars driven by frustrated athletes with a grudge. If pit road is still “hot” in the time immediately following a race, the people moving about there are team personnel and folks from the media; if pit road goes “cold”, then the area opens up to the general public. Fans might be more concerned about seeing drivers, and less attentive to race cars moving about in search of justice/vengeance, and that’s where the situation could take a nasty turn.

Two drivers trying to thump each other while sitting motionless on pit road is sad, but sometimes expected (one of those “Here he comes!” moments). When one driver rams his car into another car in order to leave the scene of a confrontation, and the rammed machine rolls nose-first into the pit wall (behind which people are standing/walking/working), what starts out as sad (or funny, or exciting, or appropriate, or good for the sport, depending on your particular take) can suddenly become tragic. The post-race events along pit road didn’t have to happen. Since they did, NASCAR is fortunate that no “innocent bystanders” – to use that cliché – were involved. For its part, NASCAR fined both Harvick and Busch $25,000 (nothing in today’s NSCS economy) and put them on double-secret, “we’re watching you” probation. What NASCAR hopes to see from all this, on a very basic, “bottom line” level, is improved television ratings. If the drivers are on probation, that must mean the boys are capable of “having at it” yet again, right?

Let’s tune in and find out!

NASCAR has been devoting time and energy lately to managing driver conflict. This is nothing new for the sport; it’s simply the unveiling of “Sprint Cup Series Driver Disagreement, version 2011.” The ongoing feud between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman took a tabloid turn when it was rumored that Newman slugged JPM during a conflict management discussion in the NASCAR trailer. Such behavior is part of the sport’s cultural mythology – a popular thread within the fabric of stock car racing. Say what you want to about the spirit of competitive drive, dedication, focus, concentration, and the like, but more times than not, these dust-ups lean toward the “personal” side of the scale. Rivalries are good – and essential – to sports for building and maintaining a sense of tension, but when those rivalries spill over into blatant aggression, suddenly the tenor changes. It’s only fun until somebody gets hurt, as parents and teachers across the globe have preached.

A push or slap (for whatever reason) on the racetrack becomes a sound bite on ESPN which becomes a direct quotation in the next day’s newspaper and the topic of a blog entry online… Next thing you know, the push/slap during competition becomes a face, with a voice, and a narrative, and that narrative develops meaning, and that meaning speaks to larger and more significant issues, and… We wait to see if those faces, voices, narratives, and meanings occur the following weekend, at the next race on the schedule. The upcoming event at Dover is most likely going to be a wild and strenuous affair – drivers and engines will be pushed to their limits, especially if variables like heat and humidity become a factor – but much of the pre-race buzz will be about Newman/JPM, round three, and Harvick/Busch, round two (or three, if you think about events during the 2010 season).

Hopefully, the accomplishments of Regan Smith and company will receive page space and air time, too. The weekend’s biggest story was overshadowed by the weekend’s most visible, and that’s a shame for all the hard-working folks who turned wrenches and made decisions and wound up in the winner’s circle on Saturday night.

Just as NASCAR’s legacy has been built around hard driving, close competition, and the sometimes-confrontational aftermaths thereof (think about the now-iconic finish of the 1979 Daytona 500 and how that network-televised, post-race, infield shoving match turned a regional sport into a national/corporate juggernaut), the sport’s legacy has also been formed through the successes of under-financed, one-car teams that defy the socio-economic pecking order and take the checkered flag first. Dave Moody, during an interview on Sirius XM’s “The Morning Drive” earlier this week, mentioned how any given team can win a race on any given week. Equity among NASCAR Sprint Cup teams has never been higher or better, according to “the Godfather”, and he’s spot on with this assessment.

Whereas, for the past decade or so, potential winners could be pared from a field of 43 down to a list of maybe six or seven “usual suspects”, the 2011 season (for one that’s only ten races old, mind you) has shown that surprising upstarts and teams considered past their prime can still run upfront and challenge the multi-car “corporations” of the Hendricks’s, the Roush’s, the Gibb’s, and the Childress’. Maybe there’s some significant meaning behind Jeff Gordon’s AARP sponsorship deal this year? Call it “carma”, but more teams are looking competitive and enjoying improved results. All participants will struggle from week to week, but that’s the nature of this thing called sports (and life…).

Heartfelt and sincere congratulations to Regan Smith, Pete Rondeau, car owner Joe Garone, and the Furniture Row racing team for renewing one’s faith in the efforts of the little guy. Call me biased as a northeasterner, but I’m always partial to a win by a driver who hails from upstate New York. Colorado sits pretty squarely off the NASCAR radar (even though Pike’s Peak International Raceway hosted NASCAR events between 1998 and 2005), but folks living out there should take notice and celebrate the accomplishments of the No. 78 Chevrolet. It’s like something out of a spy novel or a science-fiction story, a tale where the Furniture Row racing team has a secret lair (I imagine Tesla coils, walls of gauges, and lots of big switches) tucked away high within the Rocky Mountains, far from the curiosity and prying eyes of racers in towns like Statesville, Mooresville and Concord. Behind bright flashes of lightning – and with maniacal laughter echoing across the craggy peaks – one sees a checkered flag, a big check, and the Johnny Mantz Trophy, newly-emblazoned with the name “Regan Smith”. Suddenly, there’s the sound of crashing thunder. A storm must be brewing along the horizon…

No, wait. That’s just the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover.

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