Talladega, five days from now was supposed to be the Chase’s wildest race, where panic over advancing in the playoffs combined with the chaos of plate racing produced either a 43-driver Demolition Derby or an eight-wide finish at the line. But as the week in NASCAR continues, it’s clear the panic that happened at Charlotte, both in the moments before and after the checkered flag, will likely become the defining moment of this year’s Chase.
Brad Keselowski, in the aftermath of a mess that included garage chaos, brawls, and a little bit of verbal trash talking has been the central focus. In the span of five minutes, following the race he sparred with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and even damaged the car of rookie Alex Bowman before angrily defending his actions, then spending some time within the NASCAR hauler. What you saw on television was Keselowski playing bumper cars with Hamlin, and then hit Kenseth on pit road (with HANS device and belts off) before slamming into Stewart.
But what might be most damning for Keselowski was what you didn’t see, until FOX Sports released new footage Monday (http://www.foxsports.com/nascar/story/video-catches-brad-keselowski-s-garage-burnout-after-charlotte-race-101314) of his drive through Charlotte’s garage. In it, Keselowski is shown doing burnouts trying to swerve away from Hamlin, driving at a dangerous speed with crew members, toolboxes and large mechanical parts in close vicinity. Sources have claimed Keselowski even hit a transmission, knocking it across the pavement toward bystanders while driving through. It’s evidence NASCAR has surely collected, with FOX Sports 1’s Bob Dillner reporting investigators were taking pictures of tire tracks and damage inside the Charlotte garage area.
That leaves Keselowski in the most vulnerable spot amongst all drivers to draw a penalty later this afternoon. While a few are calling for the driver’s suspension, history tells us a fine of $50,000 or more, along with probation the rest of the year is more likely. Kurt Busch, after running into Ryan Newman at Darlington in April 2012, received a similar penalty. A suspension, while possible, could be considered an extreme reaction since there were other drivers who acted as aggressors: Kenseth, not Keselowski started a physical fight inside the garage and it was Hamlin who initially brake-checked the No. 2 car after the checkered flag.
You can’t really take points away, either, for a series of incidents that occurred after the race. Deducting for off-track behavior, in any circumstance, is a dangerous precedent both fans and competitors disapprove of, throwing a joker in the deck when a new format has made things crazy enough. (See: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. losing 25 points for swearing on live television during Talladega ten years ago, a penalty some believe killed momentum toward a title.) Anything Keselowski did after the race in playing bumper cars didn’t have an effect on the official results.
But, the question remains… why act so crazy? It’s a question that could also apply to many others. Kenseth, who is normally as mild-mannered as they come, acted like he was auditioning for the WWE. Hamlin, emotional at times throughout this season, had to be restrained from fisticuffs. (Kudos, by the way, to the crewman in the FOX video repeating calmly to Hamlin, “It isn’t worth it” while using one arm to keep his wheelman from pile-driving him en route to Keselowski). The rough moods even spread outside this little scenario, too, with radio traffic Saturday night especially foul for Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. The number of “F” bombs you heard on the scanner could have built a brand new FCC building with the fines collected if aired on network television.
For your answer, I simply defer to the stat sheet. Keselowski, right now is tied for NASCAR’s win lead with five, waltzed through the first round of the Chase and has firmly believed for several months his No. 2 car is again a championship-caliber program. Johnson, the defending champ, has been slow-playing this season, to a degree, working on the perfect build under this new format to go for title number seven. Kenseth, while title-less since 2003, along with winless this season still believes he has a team capable of at least getting to Homestead.
All three of those drivers, along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are currently on the outside looking in under this new format. They combine for eight of the last eleven Sprint Cup titles, with the only exceptions no longer in the Chase field (Stewart, Kurt Busch). It’s very possible, then that when the field shrinks to eight the only former champion included will be Jeff Gordon, who earned the last of his four titles way back in 2001.
Gordon, without the Chase, would lead the old point standings, by 52 over Joey Logano so his inclusion in the field of eight makes perfect sense. But one could argue Johnson and Keselowski have both had strong seasons, ones that would leave them in solid contention to still win the title even under the old Chase format. Ditto for Earnhardt, handling it better but whose three-win season has crumbled through blown tires and bad parts. Instead, in each case they’re watching their teammates run circles around the competition, putting them in the unwelcome position of second fiddle and potentially “watching” from the outside looking in while others duel for the trophy. It’s quite possible this trio will get knocked out Sunday while Ryan Newman, with two top-5 finishes and one-win wonder Kasey Kahne, with just three remain viable candidates for the trophy instead.
That’s tough to take, and one NASCAR competitors have never dealt with before: having that strong a season while drivers far weaker can simply hurdle them and stay in title contention. It’s what the sport wanted, with this new format but that doesn’t mean the emotional adjustment will be instantaneous.
“It makes me want to puke every week,” said driver Kevin Harvick of the changes. “Then we first got this, we were sitting down in our team meeting with NASCAR, and Brian said, “Here’s what we’re going to do, boys. We’re going to have this championship format and we’re going to have the elimination rounds, and Homestead is going to come down to the championship,” and I’m like, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, and then he says, if you’re going to have problems at Homestead you’re going to have them in any championship format. And I’m like, okay. And then you look at the intensity that it has added from every three weeks, and you know it’s the right thing to do because it has been so intense and so crazy, and my wife can tell you, it’s like you go home and all you do, you lay up at night and you think about, okay, what do I have to do next week, okay, what do we need to do, who do I need to talk to? And it consumes everything that you do. “
Now, that’s from a guy who hasn’t yet won a series title, in the first year with a new team where taking the trophy might be considered “extra credit” in a dominating year. How about for two former champions, where pressure mounts as the championship is not a cherry on top but a yearly expectation? The frustration for both, clearly mounting, will come out in different ways. For Johnson, it’s losing it mentally a bit and jawing back at the aggression of crew chief Knaus. But Keselowski, one of the more aggressive drivers on the circuit despite being one of its most intelligent, has never been able to just sit tight with words. His career has been littered with moments, from his time in the Nationwide Series straight up to Cup where he’s fought back from a perceived slight with a slam to someone else’s rear bumper.
What happened at Charlotte, in the form of several stages, was Keselowski’s temper boiling over. The championship, barring a Talladega miracle, is lost. After a 16th-place finish, what Keselowski claims is at the hands of Kenseth after the two made contact late in the race ,advancing on points will be difficult. Even if Keselowski avoids the wrecks at Talladega, he’s 35 points behind seventh-place Denny Hamlin. If Kahne and Kenseth, eighth and ninth in the standing,s keep their nose clean, too, Keselowski’s title bid is toast.
Champions, of course are supposed to stay above the pressure, buttoned up instead of buckling under it. Saturday night, Keselowski buckled and there’s no excuse for it. But the agony of losing under NASCAR’s new format, when you feel like you’re a 1 seed and you have to watch an 8 seed (or potentially worse) advance into the next round, is the reason why. Stick and ball sports are used to those playoff disappointments, but a short list of series champions in the last decade are certainly not.