NASCAR finds itself in a box this Tuesday A.M. (also known as After Martinsville). The past 48 hours have been nonstop jabbering about Matt Kenseth knocking Joey Logano to kingdom come. Some in the garage think Logano had it coming; others think Kenseth crossed a line. Whatever the opinion, that has led to captivating television, national conversation and actual emotion from a sport that appeared to be in freefall after the checkered flag fell (apart?) last Sunday at Talladega.
But perhaps the most interesting part of this equation is the fans, at least the ones in the stands at Martinsville, clearly picked a side in this debate. Kenseth was greeted to universal cheers the second he emerged from his car Sunday; it was almost as loud as when Jeff Gordon won the race about an hour later. Logano, meanwhile was greeted to a chorus of boos despite dominating the event, and in the process of cruising to his fourth straight victory in the Cup Series before Mr. Kenseth cruised onto his rear bumper.
That streak, now snuffed out is nothing to sneeze at, a surge forgotten about in this sea of controversy over the wreck. Only eight drivers in the sport’s modern era (1972-present) have won four straight races. Just one (Jimmie Johnson, 2007) has done so this century. Logano was on the verge of history, accomplishing it in the playoffs and would have had a chance, considering Team Penske’s strength at 1.5-mile tracks this season to set a new record of five straight at Texas this Sunday. Instead, he’ll be fighting for his championship life and searching for any scrap of momentum after Kenseth burned it to smoldering embers on the Martinsville frontstretch.
Lost too perhaps, is a championship that Logano appeared poised to win at age 25. Without the Chase that so many want to chase away he’d be leading the “regular season” points by 21 over Kevin Harvick. The duo have remained far and above the competition, producing results at a level all their own; third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 104 points behind by comparison, playing by the “old rules.” Logano’s 11 victories posted since the start of the 2014 season lead all drivers, and he joins Harvick as the only possibilities for back-to-back “Final Fours” under NASCAR’s new playoff format.
It’s a resume for Logano that’s gained strength rather quickly, lending credence to Mark Martin’s claim he’ll become the best driver of the next generation. But as his prime approaches, a transition from “successful” to “superstar,” Kenseth’s retaliation reminds us of one disturbing fact for this 20-something phenom: stats have not translated to fan support.
In fact, the boos have grown louder, in part due to Logano winning and in part due to what some viewed as arrogance in the wake of wrecking Kenseth to earn the win at Kansas. That fan attitude is also nothing new; in recent years, Logano has been in dustups with Denny Hamlin, a wreck that took out the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for a month and also engaged in a war of words with Harvick. A youngster that once had trouble standing up for himself on-track now has no problem making contact down the stretch to earn a victory.
Those style changes are producing a crucial moment in Logano’s career, or is it a crisis? The aggression which helped define Dale Earnhardt Sr. is having the opposite effect on a driver who looks more comfortable texting on an iPhone than talking tough in front of the camera. (And when he does, Logano is decidedly PG; Kenseth’s move on Sunday to wreck him was titled “chicken-you-know-what” when no one would blamed him for using a potty mouth.)
It’s a much different vibe being produced, a northeastern native emerging as the face of southern-based NASCAR that’s still yearning at times for the rough-and-tumble Earnhardt. At least Gordon came along at a time where Earnhardt was still around, setting up a dynamic that was entertaining to watch. The boos were matched by cheers for someone else, a way for the negative emotions to balance out and justification for fans to keep watching. But who will Logano’s rival be? Gordon is leaving the sport, retiring in November and Tony Stewart, reduced to a footnote on-track will follow him in 2016. Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., and even Kenseth are all in their 40s, too close to retirement age to cultivate long-term competition. Brad Keselowski? He’s a teammate, unlikely to become a hated rival in this era where cooperation within a multi-car giant earns you titles.
That leaves Logano twisting in the wind, potentially embarking on a dominant Johnson–like next few seasons ahead armed with even less of a fanbase. Which takes us back to NASCAR getting put in a box. Conventional wisdom says there’s going to need to be some punishment toward Kenseth; what it will be is unclear. However, a suspension in this case would not only be inconsistent but would serve as a notice Logano needed to be protected.
Protect, protect, protect in fact is all NASCAR’s done since Sunday. Logano’s father, Tom, was shoved into a hauler instead of being given an opportunity to confront his son’s aggressor. Logano himself was kept far away from Kenseth, incapable of conversing even though both wound up at the same infield care center. Next, the sport will punish Kenseth without Logano having a chance to defend himself man-to-man. Some might say it’s a weird, unintentional message that this youngster needs to be coddled instead of standing on his own two feet.
In this era of declining attendance and interest I often stop and wonder whether a decision NASCAR makes will win any new fans. What will punishing Kenseth do to the reputation of Logano? Just think of trying to explain this situation to someone just learning about the sport. “Well, you see, Logano was fighting for a win, wrecked Kenseth and then some people think he got all cocky about it. So a few weeks later, Kenseth wrecked him back for revenge but NASCAR thought that was too mean so they punished Kenseth as a way to keep Logano protected.” Um, what? An eye for an eye has been turned into Mom and Dad protecting the prodigal son.
Is that the way NASCAR wants Logano to be viewed? For them to make a comeback with the image-conscious next generation it’s Logano’s image, as well as his success, that will make the difference. Right now, Logano is viewed as the bad guy, right or wrong, and any punishment simply makes it worse in a sport that once settled disagreement with fists – not section F from the NASCAR Rulebook.