Accidents will happen,
We only hit and run,
I don’t want to hear it,
Because I know what I’ve done.
There’s nothing so wrong with the new NASCAR that an old racetrack can’t fix it. There’s only one track left on the schedule that was a part of NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 “Strictly Stock” (now Cup) schedule, and there’s a reason race fans have been flocking to Martinsville for 66 years back since it was still a dirt track. It’s not just for the hot dogs. The racing at Martinsville tends to get physical, tempers get frayed and sheetmetal gets bent. For years Martinsville (and North Wilkesboro in its day) was a date some drivers circled on their calendars. Racecar drivers tend to have exceptional memories. They keep a list of every fellow competitor they felt have wronged them, and come Martinsville, it’s time to settle the score. And if payback was a bitch Sunday at Martinsville it would have to be considered an AKC certified grand champion.
Obviously folks have differing opinions on the now infamous Matt Kenseth–Joey Logano brouhaha probably related to which driver or make of car they prefer. Those opinions are probably also sharply divided based on how long someone has been following the sport. Newer fans might find Kenseth’s actions the height of hooliganism. Those of us who have been following the sport longer consider it “business as usual.” Pretty clearly the crowd on hand had a favorable reaction to Kenseth’s driving Logano into the wall. I’m sure somewhere in the thunderous applause that erupted after the incident there were some folks booing as well. In the infamous words of the late Dale Earnhardt; “If they ain’t cheering they damn well better be booing.” In stark contrast to a whole lot of races, a great many people were still on hand in the grandstands to register their opinion on what happened. At a lot of races over the last few years, by halfway there’s folks who’ve decided the race has become such a boring rout, and Earnhardt (or Gordon, or Johnson et al) isn’t going to win so they pack up their gear and head for their cars to beat the post-race traffic.
By the three-quarter mark of the race there tends to be a mass exodus, and with 10 laps to go it’s a veritable stampede, a rather sad state of affairs given ticket prices. But Martinsville has always been one of those tracks where if you miss the last 20 laps you might be shocked by the final running order when it appears in the next day’s paper. (Ahem… or more likely on the Internet on your smartphone while you’re still stuck in miserable traffic despite leaving early.) Anyone else remember the spring race at Martinsville back in 2012 when Ryan Newman got a bit overly excited on a GWC restart on and put Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (who had dominated the race) into the spin cycle to steal the win? If you do, how many other races do you remember from 2012? That one was a keeper. And beyond the grandstands all across the country Sunday race fans were leaping up from their recliners where they typically nap during most stock car races lately, jaws hanging open as if needing to see a replay to confirm what they’d just seen occur. I know in my case I sprang out of my comfy chair hard enough I sent my beverage cup end over end not only across the room but down the hallway clear to the bathroom.
But some will insist, this was different. A driver who was nine laps down went ahead and took out the leader! That’s dirty pool! All right then. How exactly did Kenseth get all those laps down after having had a fast car all day? I seem to recall that when Logano and Brad Keselowski were running one-two they had a deal on restarts wherein the leader would choose the less desirable outside lane, while the second-place runner would slow dramatically after the restart to allow his teammate back in line. From there the twosome could motor happily away while the other front-runners engaged in side by side battles over third spot and that coveted inside lane. Was that tactic illegal? Apparently not, because even as blatant as the maneuvering was NASCAR swallowed their whistle. Was the tactic sporting? No it was not. But the strategy was deadly effective. I’m not biased. I’m a Mustang guy, not a Camry owner, but that maneuvering had me grinding my teeth.
Yes, the No. 2 and No. 22 are teammates, but they both had fast cars and I’d have preferred they battle for individual glory rather than team success. (And while we’re on the topic of teeth-grinding, I wasn’t enamored with drivers slamming on their brakes exiting pit road to try to ensure they rejoined the race in an odd numbered position to have a spot on the preferred inside line. Maybe it was just me but I was recalling the old Three Stooges skit “No, after you, I insist.” In a double irony, a decision to give up a spot coming off pit road nearly cost Kevin Harvick a chance at a good finish when he had a fender knocked in in the fray and was forced to pit again. But in the end being back aways probably spared him getting caught up on the wreck on the subsequent restart so he had a good finish anyway. Yes, I’ve seen teammate juking the restarts before and I’ve seen the games at pit exit previously but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.)
And that’s when things got sideways. Logano and Keselowski fumbled the pass of the baton on the lap 436 restart (likely because the strategy was so blatant the other drivers were doing their damnedest to circumvent it). Keselowski had to check up to restore order, and, not surprisingly, he got hit from behind by Kurt Busch, who had some insane idea he’d like to lead for a while if at all possible. The subsequent melee also collected Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing entry, which is how he went nine laps down in the garage area his Camry getting emergency reconstructive battlefield surgery. It’s odd to me that the same folks wringing their hands over Logano’s fate apparently won’t take a moment to sympathize with Busch’s plight as he came across the track both front wheels off the ground and clobbered the inside wall. Few folks I’ve talked to seemed to catch just how close the eventual race winner Gordon was to getting caught up in that mess as well. There was in fact a lot of damage to the left rear corner of the No. 24. A few feet further up and likely he’d have been limping his Chevy to the garage as well.
So that’s how Kenseth got nine laps down. You didn’t have to be psychic to know Kenseth was likely fuming. Everyone seems to want to write this off as payback for Kansas, but I think Kenseth’s temper was stirred from embers to conflagration level by the incident on the restart, not by something that happened three weeks ago. Ironically, the day would have turned out a whole lot better for Logano had he just driven his own race. Yep, Kenseth might have put up a fight, but with his still having a chance at a win he likely wouldn’t have decided it was time for payback at the cost of a possible victory. As it was his mindset was probably along the lines of “Well then. You played a part in seeing to it I won’t win this race. I suppose I’ll have to just see to it you don’t either.” Mission accomplished.
The title of this column is purposely sarcastic. I know what happened wasn’t an accident. You know the same. Kenseth knows the incident was purposeful, and, perhaps most importantly, Logano does as well. If I was Kenseth’s PR guy preparing him to exit the infield care center and face the media scrum I’d have suggested he say, “Aw, I didn’t mean to wreck him. I just wanted to rattle his cage a little. That there was quintessential NASCAR.” C’mon now. Which Bristol night race do most of you recall the best? Brian France wanted some “Game 7” moments? Well he sure as hell got one. It’s ironic that while Kenseth will probably be fined (a non-penalty given what Cup drivers made), lose points (hey, he’s already out of title contention) and perhaps even get suspended, but NASCAR types are already rushing to include video highlights of the incident in their promotional reels to sell tickets for upcoming events and next year. It’d be a damn shame if Kenseth isn’t at Texas, because Eddie Gossage could probably sell a bunch of tickets to fans wanting to see Round 3.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m not wringing my hands over what happened and that has nothing to do with who the two drivers involved were or what makes of cars they drove. What I saw was a genuine display of human emotion in a sport nearly devoid of it lately. In this case that emotion was rage, and no it wasn’t pretty. But this is after all stock car racing, not lawn croquet. This is a sport put on the national map (from which it has by and large receded over the past decade) by the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough having a little post-incident discussion at Daytona in 1979. Long-time fans have seen it all before. Yes, it’s more palatable when drivers wreck each other fighting over a win, but I can recall numerous instances of drivers and team forced to the garage area repairing cars just well enough to return a driver to combat not to gather points but to right a perceived wrong at the hands of another driver. Let’s see… Gordon and Clint Bowyer… Darrell Waltrip and just about everyone… Rusty Wallace and Gordon… Carl Edwards and Keselowski… Bill Elliott and Earnhardt (the seniors in both instances), Bobby Allison and Richard Petty… the list goes on.
What did catch me off guard was some of the media comments after the fact. Kyle Petty seems to want to Kenseth flogged with desert thorns for hooliganism. Hmmm. Funny thing is I seem to recall Petty himself getting irritated on a restart because another driver in the “laps down” line wouldn’t yield position to him. Petty went ahead and wrecked the offending driver on the restart in an attempt to get his lap back, but NASCAR penalized him. His then colorful and flamboyant car owner Felix Sabates then had Petty’s car repainted black and silver for the next race in a less than subtle protest: if it had been Earnhardt who did the same thing, NASCAR wouldn’t have penalized him. Some of the post-race commentary on what had happened was grating. Oh, woe is me! This sort of thing can’t be allowed to happen in stock car racing. This is a black eye for the sport. We don’t need this sort of thuggery in stock car racing!
What we don’t need in stock car racing is analysts with too much mousse in their hair, wearing ties, proclaiming themselves experts though their own driving careers never went much of anywhere. “I wish the fans were booing!” one of them huffed. You know what? They weren’t. Deal with it. Find a new line of work. Call it a “bread and circuses” mentality, but over the last decade a whole lot of fans have been hollering “more bread… better circuses.” Another opined Kenseth’s move has set the sport back decades. Here’s hoping. If we could land it back around 1988 that would be ideal.
But, some will protest, there has to be a line drawn somewhere! In fact there is. Stock car racing isn’t lawn croquet, but it’s not a demolition derby either. So where do I draw the line? Well I seem to recall a truck race at Texas back in 2011. Kyle Busch, a full-time Cup driver, was moonlighting in the truck series, He felt he’d been roughed up in an early race incident so he went ahead and took out Ron Hornaday Jr., a full-time Truck Series driver competing for that year’s title… under caution, even as his spotter and crew chief hollered at him not to do it. Yep, I found that outright reprehensible. For his knavery Busch was suspended for that Sunday’s Cup event at Texas. If NASCAR were to decide wrecking someone under caution in a series where you aren’t eligible for points deserves the same penalty as what happened on Sunday, they’re clearly sending the wrong message. If it does happen, I’d love to see JGR put Ross Kenseth in the No. 20 Cup car next weekend. It’d be a little more subtle than what Matt did on Sunday, but the message would be the same.
Over the years Kenseth has been on both sides of the Matthew 26:52 equation. (In this instance Matthew is neither Kenseth or McLaughlin… he’s sold a whole lot more books.) I recall a then-Busch race at Dover in 1999. Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were battling for the series title and Kenseth went spinning off the front bumper of Earnhardt. They said afterward they both hated that it happened. Kenseth presumably hated it a whole lot more than Earnhardt. But then I recall a Busch race at Rockingham where Kenseth sent some dude named Tony Stewart spinning come off the final curve even as fans were scrambling through their programs to find out who was driving the No. 17 Robby Reiser-owned Ford that day. It was Kenseth’s first win in that series and led to an eventual job offer from Jack Roush.
While we’re taking a hayride down Memory Lane, that first Martinsville Cup race in 1949 was won by that year’s eventual champion Red Byron at the wheel of an Oldsmobile. He finished three laps ahead of Lee Petty in a Plymouth and Ray Erikson in a Mercury. Sadly, not only have all three drivers since passed, so have the three car marques they were driving that day. But the hot dogs are still the same at Martinsville! When the France family first took over the joint they tried messing with the hot dogs and, brother, if you think people are kicking up a hullabaloo over Sunday’s race you ought to have heard the screaming back then. (Yeah, OK, the heart of the matter is Valleydale meat now, not Jesse Jones.)
Clearly there’s no need to call in CSI for an investigation of that occurred Sunday. We know whodunit, we know where, when and how. All that’s left to sort out is a motive. And when you sift through the ashes and the broken car parts what you’ll ultimately find is NASCAR’s fingerprints all over the weapon. Blame the Chase format and the elimination rounds. They told us that this format would make the racing more exciting. Well they got all the excitement they could handle and then some on Sunday, didn’t they? It’s a matter of the Law on Unintended Consequences. By having drivers eliminated from playoff contention out there competing against those still eligible for the title, some of the former feeling they’d been unfairly deprived of their chance, well, this sort of shit is going to happen time to time. They can scold Kenseth, fine him, take away points and sit him on the sidelines awhile, but they can’t give Logano back a race win (or at least a top-five finish) he was headed for prior to the incident.
Oh well. If you don’t like it, change the format. Ironically enough under the old pre-Chase Latford system, Logano would still be leading the points despite a rough day at Martinsville. He’d be 21 points up on Harvick and yeah, the rest of the field would be all but mathematically eliminated. And I’d be OK with that. Logano has six wins and he’d be leading the points. Harvick has three wins. Both drivers have top 20 top-five results in 33 races. Yep, with three races left to run we’d have a good little points battle on our hands, and yesterday’s race (presuming the results were the same) would have tightened things up nicely. In the NXS and the trucks, we have two intriguing championship battles minus any of this Chase nonsense. Still in an uproar over Sunday? I think it was Kyle Busch who said last week, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
I’m also amazed by how many pundits have decided that Logano’s title chances were doomed by what happened Sunday. He may have left Martinsville hot under the collar but prior to that Logano was the hottest driver on the circuit. All he needs to do is win one of the next two races to advance. He’s clearly capable of winning either of the two. Mathematically he could get in on points alone, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that happening. To use a tortured sports analogy, Logano and the No. 22 team are up in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run at the plate. After Martinsville, he’s got one strike on him. It’s time for Logano to swing for the fences. After all, Brian France wants his Game 7 moment.
Hopefully Kenseth and Logano will patch things up this week. Maybe Matt could bury the hatchet by giving Joey a $50 gift card to Dollar General. Then of course he could add, “You’re going to be able to get a lot of cool stuff. You might want to bring your dad to help you carry your bags.” Truthfully, I hope they just decide to agree to disagree. This sport has been sadly lacking in rivalries and feuds as of late. Even if it’s a battle between two of the most milquetoast personalities in the sport, it beats everyone standing around singing “Kumbaya” by firelight.
Hopefully not lost in all the uproar was Gordon’s 93rd career at the curtain comes down on his storied career. Yep, it was right out of Hollywood; a legendary driver in the twilight of his career drives off into the daylight adjusted autumnal sunset (well, actually I think the sun had already set and it was twilight) on his way to victory lane. I think over those final 10 laps a whole lot of race fans were pulling for the No. 24 thinking, “If my driver can’t win, Gordon winning wouldn’t be so bad.” (Yes, I am aware there are still rabidly ABG types out who hated to see him win, but then there can’t be a Jeff Gordon without there being ABG types.) I had little use for Gordon myself back when he entered the sport, quickly began winning and in short order dominating races.
It’s perhaps ironic that a large portion of the ABG types were Earnhardt Sr. fans. In the era he was dominating the sport, there were a whole lot of folks who were Anybody-But-Earnhardt zealots. When anyone wins too many races, they’ll develop a group of fans but in equal or greater numbers equally rabid detractors. Over the past decade the wins for Gordon haven’t come as frequently. He’s learned a dose of humility and has been as gracious in defeat as he was in victory. It’s hard to believe Gordon’s last Cup title was scored in 2001, almost 14 years ago. Over the last five years, Gordon has only won 11 races. (Yes, I am aware there’s a whole lot of drivers who would give their left nut for 11 wins over those five seasons). In 1998 alone, Gordon won 13 times. In the two previous seasons he’d won 10 races apiece. And of course, Sunday’s win guarantees Gordon a chance to compete for the title at Homestead. Trust me if that happens, Hollywood will in fact be calling for the movie rights.
If there was a fly in the ointment, it was Gordon’s frank admission that with his spot guaranteed, the No. 24 team will immediately focus on Homestead. I’d have preferred to hear him say “I’ve only got three races left and intend to win every one of them!” It’d be easier to hate a guy with that sort of attitude. But give style points to Gordon who, either by design or coincidence, decided to forego the post-race burnouts and donuts. I think it sent a message, “You all might not have expected me to win this race, but I did.” So could Gordon win a title with just one race win, the same scenario that spawned the Chase which has bedeviled him? I suppose he’s got a 25% shot, just like the three other drivers who make the cut. If he does, NASCAR will have their Game 7 moment and people will finally stop talking about the “All Saints” day race in Virginia. Until then… we’ll always have Martinsville. Here’s looking at you kid.
Accidents will happen,
We only hit and run,
I used to be a victim,
Now I’m not the only one….