“Did you see the Texas fight? In NASCAR?”
Amongst coffee stops, or milling about on the train, or in offices Monday morning, millions of people in America will take a break, get bored at work and start asking that question. Some of them will be lifelong NASCAR fans, still absorbing the ramifications of a bar-like brawl that involved everyone from the 43-year-old father of two Jeff Gordon, to a guy from Kasey Kahne’s crew who jumped in to throw roundhouse punches simply just because. It was a most unlikely scenario, erupting moments after the checkered flag that rapidly turned pit road into a three-ring circus, equipped with trendy YouTube clips and drama that threatens to explode, not erode in the heat of the desert at Phoenix Sunday.
But such people, while armed with strong opinions, would be talking about NASCAR no matter what. Without the final 60 laps, a series of events which turned Texas from tedious to thrilling, their central focus would be on a horrible playoff format, another ho-hum win by Jimmie Johnson and who might squeak into the sport’s first Final Four. No, their excitement over Sunday, while flooding this website Monday morning is, for once, also less relevant to its future. Instead, it’s the vast majority of people who will ask that question not knowing the track length of Texas Motor Speedway, what a double-file restart is, or even if stock cars always turn left. Heck, they may know nothing more about Brad Keselowski, before seeing that fight clip, other than he was “the cool guy that drank beer” on SportsCenter after winning the NASCAR championship a few years back.
Here’s what they do know: There’s a crazy video clip, replayed everywhere from CNN to someone’s local schmocal blog, showing people got mad at each other, they fought like a motorsports flash mob and for a few seconds, the NFL played second fiddle. It’s how many of them pay attention, after watching that and how strongly they react to this Keselowski-Matt Kenseth–Gordon-Kevin Harvick feud that could very well determine the future of the sport’s new format.
Whether it’s a watershed moment won’t be known until after the checkered flag flies at Homestead in two weeks. For now, it serves as the perfect distraction, covering up a Texas race that was, for its first 250 circuits, nothing to write home about to mom. You had six caution flags, almost all of them for debris that was a convenient excuse to keep the field from getting too spread out. Johnson, in cruise control out front, led a parade of Chasers stuck in place behind him by NASCAR’s dreaded “aero push.” When Keselowski, struggling most of the day, darted out in front on pit strategy, taking the lead with a 10th-place car on lap 253, he became the poster child for NASCAR’s most boring buzz words: track position.
But the new kids in town, trying to figure out how Gordon was trying to punch a man 13 years his junior, know nothing about three hours of boring competition. Every bad debris caution, pullover pass and moment of single-file highway driving got buried by two green-white-checkered finishes, both of which caused the type of rough, on-track contact that led quickly to fisticuffs. Keselowski’s side-scrape of Gordon, blowing his tire and potentially an ability to move on in his quest for a fifth championship, is the movie climax that makes the ADD generation pay attention. Three hours of “eh” can be forgiven these days for three minutes of unquestioned excellence, especially when looking to hook potential new fans.
Everyone’s focus, now will center on the actions of Keselowski, whose contact and aggressive driving ticked off Gordon, then Harvick during a second green-white-checkered finish where both men made contact battling for second. Both cases reminded longtime fans of the way Dale Earnhardt, Sr. raced, where manners took a back seat to manhandling people with a checkered flag on the line. It was that style of racing, causing strong opinions inside the garage area that led to a “good vs. evil” style of growth, one which spurred both rivalries and ratings. You were either for or against Earnhardt, with no in between in the same way this incident, along with Martinsville last week are cementing feelings toward Keselowski. The list of drivers on the “hater list,” like during Earnhardt’s rise to prominence in the 1980s, now includes some of the biggest names inside the sport: Gordon, Harvick, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. While Hamlin wasn’t involved this time, you could see television shots of him watching in the garage, intrigued as others jumped on board the hater train.
Keselowski critics will say there can’t be a second coming of NASCAR’s “Intimidator,” not when the driver commands such little respect inside the garage. But at the same time, it seems the veterans demanding such respect comes at a price. Gordon, who chose to restart on the outside seems to think Keselowski should have stayed directly behind him, giving him room instead of going “risky” and making a three-wide hole that could have caused contact and cut down a tire (spoiler: it did. But that wasn’t guaranteed.) Harvick, knowing the “win or miss out” mode both drivers are in when it comes to Homestead wanted Keselowski to back down, giving room so the No. 4 could have blown by in the final two laps and challenge Johnson for the victory. God forbid they fought amongst themselves, as any local short track racers would have instead of Keselowski waving the white flag of surrender.
Surely, there are two sides to this story and Keselowski deserves his share of criticism. But no one, on any side is 100 percent in the right anymore, which makes the intensity of the rivalry so entertaining. When’s the last time you saw Gordon so worked up, letting frustration boil over in the eyes of NASCAR Nation? There have been flashes, like with Jeff Burton at Texas a few years ago and even a shoving incident with Matt Kenseth at Bristol back in 2006. But Gordon, to be honest, hasn’t been that consistently angry with someone since the early days of racing… who else? Dale Sr. Owner Rick Hendrick, virtually unchallenged in the sport over the last decade, hasn’t had someone dead set on destroying every member of every one of his teams – and having the financial and ownership backing to do it – since Richard Childress had the resources in the 1990s. No doubt, it’s the type of actual competition that could keep this sport going for several years to come.
Now, the question is whether the attention Keselowski earned, through that brawl along with NASCAR, is enough to bury all the problems. The race was super long Sunday, filled with debris cautions and a glutton of rich teams dominating the proceedings. Those close to the Chase call it exciting, experts so enthralled with the quality moments they miss the reality of declining ratings and attendance during every race. The format, at one point in Texas, was in position to send Gordon and three drivers with their share of problems to Homestead: a winless Kenseth, a driver in Ryan Newman who has fewer top 5s than half the Chasers have victories and someone who hasn’t even competed in every race this season (Hamlin). One big brawl doesn’t fix the strong contingent of protesters hoping a driver who isn’t deserving, who’s had a terrible season compared to Logano or Gordon or even a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. takes the title and turns NASCAR’s Chase into a farce.
Or does any of that even matter? This sport, for all its changes as of late, is stressing short-term pain for long-term gain. NASCAR CEO Brian France had that in mind when he created this playoff, a far-fetched idea he had to sell to the highest level of skeptical executives, then endure a season of criticism while staking a decade’s worth of gambling on its long-term success. The 18-to-34 generation is what he’s looking for, a brand new group of fans that can keep the sport going while hoping the older crowd sticks around during the transition. And while new rules help, personalities matter more; an ADD generation needs a moment of brilliance to, well, ADD about in Twitter posts and water cooler talk before sticking around to check out more.
That moment, you’d have to think is now reality. Can momentum follow?