Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy says that NASCAR made a big mistake in the penalties handed out to Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart following a postrace incident at Charlotte.
NASCAR had a chance to gain some credibility and maintain consistency while sending a strong message to drivers Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Tony Stewart after post-race tempers boiled over at Charlotte last weekend. If you missed it, Keselowski and Kenseth tangled a couple of times on track during the race, and Keselowski hit Kenseth’s car with his own on pit road after the race. Keselowski inadvertently bumped Tony Stewart in the process, and Stewart took exception, throwing his car into reverse and slamming backwards into the front of Keselowski’s car.
Hamlin, meanwhile, upset with Keselowski for contact in the closing laps, brake checked Keselowski on the cool down lap and then followed Keselowski through the garage, cutting through stalls, on the way back to their haulers. Keselowski lit up the tires in the garage bay and, according to Hamlin, hit a transmission a team had in there in the process. Hamlin was restrained from going after Keselowski when the two climbed from their cars, but Matt Kenseth wasn’t, and Kenseth jumped Keselowski from behind as he walked through the garage area.
For all of the post-race actions, NASCAR fined Keselowski $50,000 and put him on probation for four weeks. Stewart got a $25,000 fine and four weeks’ probation. Hamlin and Kenseth were not penalized. Given past penalties and the fact that Stewart was provoked , NASCAR got it right with him. They failed miserably on the rest. Here’s why.
1. NASCAR is playing favorites… big time.
Or at least they’re giving the illusion that they are, and you can look at it in a couple of ways. One, you can say they gave preferential treatment to Kenseth and Hamlin because of their Chase status, and the same case could be made for Keselowski, whose actions warranted more than he got.
But you could also read something else here: both Hamlin and Kenseth drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team which has had several infractions in recent years but received relatively light punishment for it. For all the talk among fans on the Internet about NASCAR playing favorites with various teams, this most recent non-penalty for one team could certainly be construed as favoritism, even if who they drive for never entered NASCAR’s thought process.
Whether or not NASCAR was favoring anyone here is not really important, but that it certainly looks that way to race fans most definitely is. If people believe the illusion is real, it gets awfully hard to prove that it isn’t, and that’s the corner NASCAR finds itself in now.
2. Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears should demand a refund.
Consistency? What consistency? At Richmond just this spring, Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears got in a spat after the race. Mears confronted Ambrose and then grabbed him by the arm, and Ambrose responded by sucker-punching Mears in the side of his face. Ambrose was fined $25,000 and given a month’s probation for hitting Mears; Mears got $15,000 and four weeks for provoking him.
So how does Kenseth get away scot-free six months later? Again, is it because he’s in the Chase? Because of the organization he drives for? His reputation for being mild-mannered? Whatever the reason, it was a bad decision on the part of NASCAR, who already has the reputation of being inconsistent with the rule book. Kenseth jumped a competitor from behind in the garage after a race and attempted to tackle him to the ground. Two other drivers were penalized for a similar infraction earlier this year. How on earth can NASCAR justify this lack of response? Perhaps Ambrose and Mears (with Mears, in particular, having a mild-mannered reputation similar to Kenseth’s) should be asking for their fine money back.
3. What about the people not in 3200-pound racecars?
This part might be the most puzzling, and most egregious, of all. Retaliating on pit road after a race is bad enough because drivers are unbuckling their seatbelts and removing helmets, and there are crewmen walking on pit road as well who are not protected by a car’s roll cage. The fine and probation Keselowski got is mostly consistent with penalties given to Kurt Busch after a similar pit road incident in 2012, except that Busch got probation until December 31, more than six months. Keselowski got… four weeks. The season won’t even be over in four weeks. He should have been given six months for thie pit road incident.
And he should have gotten parked for what went on in the garage.
There are a lot of people in the garage area after a race, including crews and media, and because it was Charlotte, the home track for most teams, there were family members of many crewmen as well. According to witnesses in the garage, people had to scatter to avoid Keselowski and the pursuing Hamlin. That neither driver hit anyone with either their cars or the transmission Keselowski allegedly sent flying is completely beside the point. Neither driver, but Keseloski in particular, by doing a burnout, had any regard for the safety of those around them, and Keseloski should have been parked for Talladega.
Why parking and not a points deduction? Two reasons. One, taking points for something that didn’t directly impact the race doesn’t warrant that. Two, a points fine would have little to no impact in this situation. Keseloski is in a situation where he must win at Talladega to remain alive in the Chase, and if he doesn’t advance, the fine would not matter. If he wins, the point fine wouldn’t matter because he’d automatically advance with the same number of points as the other seven drivers who move on.
4. And what about Hamlin’s role?
Hamlin was hardly an innocent bystander. Unhappy with Keselowski for contact in the closing laps (whether that happened because Hamlin was holding up a faster Keselowski is debatable), Hamlin threw a brake check at Keselowski on the cool-down lap. Keselowski tried to turn him, but didn’t get enough leverage, and Hamlin then followed Keselowski to the garage and through the bay itself, showing about the same regard for the people working in that area. No, he didn’t light up his tires and he didn’t scatter a heavy drivetrain around, but he did provoke Keselowski to do those things by giving chase. A suspension might be a little harsh, but a hefty fine and six-months’ probation was the least NASCAR could have done. And perhaps at least parking him for a couple of laps at ‘Dega might have made a point, too.
5. So, in a nutshell, if you’re in the Chase, you can do whatever you want.
We knew from the start that NASCAR would allow the Chase to become a free-for-all. They said as much when they announced the format in January, declaring
“we expect contact!” like a proud parent. What was unexpected was that they would allow it to spill over onto pit road and even into the garage without repercussion, save a slap on the wrist here or there, that drivers would be allowed to jeopardize the safety of many in the name of excitement.
NASCAR is getting exactly what they want from this Chase with on-track messes (some of which could well go beyond racing incidents into team orders territory) and post race confrontations. What they haven’t gotten so far is better ratings or more people in the stands. And in the long run, if the sanctioning body continues to let its credibility erode like this week, the manufactured excitement won’t be enough to keep the sport relevant. The lack of consistency and regard for safety will further undermine the sanctioning body, and there will be nobody to blame except NASCAR.
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