Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: NASCAR Turns Wrestling at Phoenix

It used to be the greatest indictment of NASCAR after a controversial event was that it was “becoming just like big-time wrestling.” Which after this weekend’s fracas at Phoenix International Raceway I say, “FINALLY.”

Let’s be honest. Wrestling is awesome. Back in the late 1990s when NASCAR was in its heyday and being thrust into the public conscious (ABC’s Steel Chariots anyone?), wrestling had hit its high-water mark as well. Whether you were into the WWF’s Monday Night Raw or WCW’s Monday Nitro, things didn’t get much better; mix in Wrestlemania, Starcade, Halloween Havoc, Royal Rumble or any other Pay-Per-View special, and you have the perfect parallel to between that and whatever race was happening that particular weekend.

This past Sunday reminded us why we started watching NASCAR in the first place: a championship on the line, a three-way brand battle between Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota, and the classic battle of The Establishment vs. The Newcomer.

In a span of about two minutes, all of this degenerated into a guy fueled up on 5-Hour Energy trying to run down the AARP.

The fines that followed were pocket change considering the driver’s salaries and that the fine money goes into the points fund, meaning they’ll probably just get most of it back at the end of the year. Who knows, maybe it’s still tax deductible too?

As has been proven yet again this year, the races worth watching and those that actually provided some the excitement and entertainment that drew us into racing to begin with, were provided by a short track.

Yeah I know – calling a 1-miler a short track is like calling a stock car a stock car. Deal with it.

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Entering the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, all Brad Keselowski has to do is essentially not wreck the car, not run it out of gas, not have a pit penalty or have some other bizarre set of circumstances befall the No. 2 team, and they will win the first Cup title for team owner Roger Penske. In doing so, they he will also win the first championship at the wheel of a Dodge since Richard Petty in 1975.

And after doing that, Dodge will promptly exit the sport, Seinfeld-style, while Penske defects to Ford for 2013 and beyond.

This was a move I never quite understood, and as the season unfolded still fail to see the upside to this venture. Had Dodge came to the game with a little more money and a couple of extra teams to help spread the burden of developing what is essentially the third generation of the CoT, perhaps The Captain would not have set sail for the Blue Oval waters back in March.

Even more remarkable than switching car makes as you’re about to break control from the General Motors and Hendrick headlock that has been on the sport since 2006 is the fact that Keselowski and the No. 2 Miller Lite team are doing so as essentially a one-man band. They have had three teammates in less than a year between Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. – all of which carried about its own swirl of controversy and distraction.

It’s not that much different than what Petty was doing in the mid-late 1970s either: there weren’t a lot of Dodges back then and the last real Charger rolled off the assembly line in 1974; that didn’t stop The King and Chief from winning races and championships – even as mother Mopar was circling the drain and in desperate times.

For those who have followed motorsports for some time or are familiar with the golden age of musclecars, this is typical Chrysler. Late to the party, go out with a bang and give up just as you get it figured out.

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Getting back to Jeff Gordon’s little freakout last weekend, there’s somebody else who’s actions were not exactly becoming of him – though not entirely unseen.

Call it incidental contact if you wish, but Jeff Burton’s contact with Danica Patrick looked about as casual as it did when he hooked Gordon (total coincidence) at Texas a couple of years ago, which resulted into the shoving match between the two. Patrick’s half-spin and chicane-ery on the frontstretch resulted into a lot of mangled racecars, among them Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Mark Martin’s fancy new lightweight/low center of gravity MWR in-house one off.

Nobody ever really thinks of going after Burton or getting into it with him after any such an incident. Mainly because as The Mayor, by the time you got to him, he’d start things off with a “well, let’s take a look at how this all started….” Five minutes later, you’d forget when you were mad or even came over there in the first place.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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