NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR, Bowyer, Gordon Gone Wild… The “New Normal?” What Next?

Only two words can describe the racing Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Twilight zone.

In one corner, you had Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion who’s more likely to be found watching _The Wiggles_ than throwing a punch piling into Clint Bowyer’s car like Triple H attempting a suplex. The objective clearly was not just to wreck but destroy, sparking an embarrassing, full-scale brawl involving everyone from opposing jackmans to Team Vice-Presidents. NASCAR will be reduced to YouTube fodder this Monday, for everything from Clint Bowyer’s “beer man’s” sprint to try and chop Gordon’s head off, to the herd of police that had to guide Gordon from the racetrack in order to keep him physically intact, to the “romper room”-style antics of uncontrolled fighting that looked like a bunch of WWE dropouts trying to audition off a bad script. It was a man who’s spent the last 20 years as the best driver of his generation making a two-second call that briefly made him the dumbest.

You had his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who’s spent a half-dozen years taking his main Chase challenger by the bootstraps, making them _believe_ they had a chance and then crushing their heart into tiny little pieces down the stretch. In most cases, the end result creates so many traumas it takes well over a year for said driver to recover (see: Hamlin, Denny; Edwards, Carl). So how did Johnson handle Keselowski’s heart this time? By promptly, um, melting a bead on the right front – perhaps caused by overdriving his car – slamming hard into the outside wall, pulling into the garage and virtually handing the trophy and the title of “changing of the guard” to his biggest rival. With it went thousands of wasted words on Johnson’s pending coronation, created a bunch of shocked (and cheering) fans packed into Phoenix International Raceway and paved the way for the first champion not driving Hendrick chassis and engines to win it since Kurt Busch in 2004.

There was Keselowski himself, who fought circumstances and dodged bullets all the way to a sixth-place finish that put him on the doorstep of history he’d already like to change. Instead of acting joyous, a man about to accomplish a lifetime dream he sounded like an angry neighborhood watchman who’d spent the morning being shot at. Swearing like a sailor in a series of interviews, he claimed the last five laps of racing consisted of drivers trying to “kill themselves,” argued the dichotomy of being yelled at for racing Jimmie Johnson aggressively a week earlier and acted like a man who felt like he’d be remembered for earning the title based on J.J.’s misfortune – not the success of his own team, whose average finish this Chase is a sparkling 5.3.

And then you have the last lap, NASCAR’s version of Demolition Derby on steroids in a circus-like finish more like a video game than real life. An oil slick, Danica Patrick creeping slowly on the frontstretch and a large debris field of sheet metal were apparently not reasons to throw the yellow but bonus obstacles to avoid, a man-made firepit of death as cars came towards the checkered flag at full speed. A half-dozen cars got wrecked, Ms. Patrick got airborne and the only safe thing about the last five seconds is that no debris reached the grandstands.

Oh, and did I mention the winner, Kevin Harvick, spent the weekend dodging reports he’s leaving the only Cup team he’s ever driven for in order to race for Stewart-Haas in 2014? Creating an awkward Victory Lane, then postrace presser where a stunned Richard Childress still didn’t know how to react to what he considers an outright backstabbing? Yeah, ‘cause people win in the midst of these kind of dramas _all the time._

Yikes. There’s so much cray-cray from Phoenix Honey Boo Boo’s redoing her holiday special just to compete. But in the midst of digesting this mess, what does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? For the answer, we go to the word that defines all of these surprising developments…

Extreme.

Yes, more aggressive driving is what we need in this sport. Nice, single-file formations with plenty of room between drivers to avoid that dreaded “aero push” have a way of creating empty seats in the stands. But there’s a huge difference between roughing someone up and using your vehicle as a blatant attempt to cause bodily harm. That puts NASCAR on the radar for the wrong reasons, the danger of the sport highlighted instead of the beauty of controlled aggression. Keep in mind what Gordon did in ending the championship chances of Bowyer is also no different than what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday at Texas last November. Anything less than a race suspension at Homestead, even for the four-time champ will raise questions about where, exactly is the line of “Boys, Have At It.”

Yes, a new champion is exactly what NASCAR needs considering most fans that tuned off during the Chase simply assumed Jimmie Johnson would come out on top. Now, after two years of missed opportunities anyone who says “the No. 48 is an automatic” should be handed a new title: “moron.” But what Johnson’s crash does, despite the ascendance of Keselowski, is make this title Chase as little more than a yawner. Except for those anxious to see the No. 2 car rise, Homestead will be a whole lot of racing in 10th, staying out of trouble and ensuring Penske Racing earns their first NASCAR championship. Sadly, it’s not the type of scenario that will get millions of new race fans tuning in.

Yes, NASCAR loses something, an element of drama, when the race doesn’t end under a green-flag finish. But the Patrick incident, a wounded car sitting in the middle of the frontstretch is exactly why we don’t race to the caution flag anymore. Dale Jarrett, in a similar scenario at New Hampshire back in 2003 narrowly avoided being hit and/or seriously hurt. Patrick only avoided the injury part this time; considering how high her car got airborne, along with Paul Menard’s battered front end that’s honestly a bit of a miracle. Look, I’m all in favor of a green-flag finish. So instead of having everyone slam into each other, why not in these types of situations void the white-flag lap, pull another green-white-checker and start again? If safety is the number one priority, racing to the caution (or checkers) is not coming back consistently so that’s going to be the next best thing.

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Lions, and tigers, and crazy wrecks… oh my. This race wasn’t Kansas, or Phoenix… more like the NASCAR Twilight Zone?

Keselowski himself is one who clearly speaks his mind. But his postrace interviews, while full of p*** and vinegar also lay out a compelling case. He was knocked for having a “death wish,” by Tony Stewart last week after aggressive driving against Jimmie Johnson, but the last few laps at Phoenix resembled a fight to the death. What do drivers want? What does NASCAR want? This back-and-forth pendulum of too little or too much is like Goldilocks skipping the “just right” portion. Nothing, at Phoenix appeared to be normal.

But is that because everyone – from the drivers, to the fans, to NASCAR itself – has lost their grip on what the right version of “normal” should be?

*Connect with Tom!*
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