The ranks of NASCAR might be short on attendance, sponsor dollars, entries, etc., but the same can’t be said for emotional outbursts. Drivers berating their crews and their teams. Drivers fighting drivers. And now, owners fighting drivers.
Listen to the many PR machines operating in the realm of major league stock car racing, and each and every one of these episodes were regrettable lapses in judgment, lapses in control. Examples of the stress of this sport getting to professionals. Richard Childress wasted no time making that clear after NASCAR levied monetary fines and probation against the longtime owner on Monday, stating, “I let my passion and my emotions get the best of me. I accept the penalty NASCAR announced today.” Big surprise there, for a fine and probation is about as much a slap on the wrist as Stephen Garcia getting suspended from football… for the spring.
But while Childress’ remarks are exactly what NASCAR and the big-time corporate backers of Richard Childress Racing’s many teams wanted to hear, one can’t help but wonder if Childress’ actions in the Truck garage on Saturday afternoon were in fact more calculated (and not just because of eyewitness accounts claiming that he removed his watch before confronting Busch). After all, letting emotions go wild is proving to be an effective tactic across the sport’s garage.
Martin Truex, Jr. went on a profane tirade aimed at his pit crew after errors cost the team a shot at the win at Richmond earlier this spring, effectively firing his entire crew over the team radio even before the checkered flag fell that Saturday night. It wasn’t a week before Michael Waltrip Racing announced a drastic pit crew realignment for the No. 56 team. Performance improved; Truex posted back-to-back top-10 results. In the four races prior to the swap, Truex’s average finish was 28.75… in the four races since, it’s 16.0. And the pit crew, of course, hasn’t been a subject of conversation at all.
Kurt Busch’s tantrums over the radio throughout this spring made Truex’s look tame, and they went on for weeks. From Texas on, the senior driver in the Penske Racing camp tore his team and organization to shreds for hours every race day, to the point that the driver had to make a public statement that he would stop swearing and attacking his team over the radio. The results? Penske Racing started sending more engineers to the race track. Brad Keselowski races into the All-Star Race, wins the pole for the 600 and wins the Cup race at Kansas. Busch is right there with his teammate, scoring a top 5 in the 600 and the pole at Kansas. Now, with two more horsepower tracks and a return to Daytona (where the elder Busch was the class of the field during Speedweeks) among the next month’s worth of races, Penske Racing has found their stride at a most opportune time.
The pattern of brash, raw emotional actions bearing fruit for struggling Cup teams is not something unique to 2011, either. When the No. 29 team was lagging behind the upper echelon of the Cup garage, his self-owned No. 33 NNS entry continually struggling on pit road and rumors flying that Kevin Harvick was out the door on his way to Stewart-Haas Racing, his continual barrage of criticism towards his crew, his organization, and his situation large gave way to a Cup team that was a title contender in 2010. It has also turned his Nationwide Series operation into one of only a handful of cars capable of keeping up with Joe Gibbs Racing’s vaunted Toyotas.
Such behavior even benefited the most calculated and collected team NASCAR has to offer… the five-time defending Cup champions. With the No. 48 pit crew failing on the job as Denny Hamlin stormed his way to victory at Texas last November, Chad Knaus took the unprecedented step of benching his entire crew mid-race. It was a ruthless, impulsive move that absolutely no one in attendance could even fathom. Yet two weeks later, Jeff Gordon’s pit crew was celebrating Jimmie Johnson’s fifth consecutive Cup.
This is an emotional sport. And with as much talent as there is, filling the field week after week intangibles truly can and do make a difference more often than not. That said, who can blame Richard Childress for deciding to play the emotions card and go full bore at what can only be considered a menace to his race team?
After all, it wasn’t but a month ago that Busch ran over Kevin Harvick’s car at Darlington… twice. And that was payback motivated for an incident that had taken place at Homestead nearly six months ago. Rowdy’s got no problem keeping score. There is also something to be said about a driver giving love taps after the checkered flag flew… while on probation, just as Busch did to RCR prospect Joey Coulter.
Childress has been around this sport a long time, both before and after Brian France. These aren’t the days where a meeting with Bill France would whip even the most hardheaded competitors into line. Nowadays, when NASCAR decides to hold a meeting, the competitors keep right on fighting, even in the principal’s office. Just ask Juan Pablo Montoya, who reportedly took a haymaker from Ryan Newman during NASCAR-sponsored peace talks.
Knowing that, Childress is fully aware that NASCAR putting Busch on probation is about as much a slap on the wrist as Ohio State Buckeyes being suspended for the season openers a year later, but cleared to play in the Sugar Bowl. And proportionally, it doesn’t seem to have deterred Busch’s post-race aggression a bit… after all, he went after Coulter because he was passed in a hard but clean last-lap move. Imagine if Coulter had spun him out.
NASCAR has no control of this sport anymore. The finances suck, the future is uncertain, and the boys are more than having at it. That being said, an owner that’s been around for a very long time, is fully aware of the power that emotions play in this sport, and knows a problem when he sees one. So instead of playing it safe and going to the referees with his concerns, he rolled up his sleeves and took care of business. All it cost him was some pocket change and that same slap on the wrist that did anything but deter Mr. Busch this past weekend.
If that works out for Childress like it has for Johnson, Harvick, Truex and all of Penske Racing, Kyle Busch may well play nice with his drivers come Pocono.
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