NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Context, Consistency & Dangerous Precedents

Context can be a dangerous word but it is a word that is quintessentially appropriate to the asinine punishment meted out to Matt Kenseth by the powers that be. From all points across the NASCAR diaspora, the instantaneous reaction to Kenseth’s punishment after his wreck with Joey Logano last weekend was one of shock and surprise at the severity of the sentence. Unfortunately, the response has not simmered a day later.

I don’t think anyone expected the veteran Joe Gibbs Racing wheelman to get off “scot free” – a fine, a loss of points, probation – but two races seems especially draconian. As the well-respected, always-erudite ex-driver Ricky Craven noted on ESPN in the immediate aftermath of the ruling coming down, “I think we made a terrible, terrible mistake today.”

The man who won in five separate NASCAR divisions was absolutely correct.

There are so many facets to this confluence of circumstances, many of which have roots in the infamous 2010 proclamation from NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton of, “Boys, have at it… and have a good time.” Since that statement was made there have been a number of occasions when the boys (and girls) have definitely had at it. Frankly, there have been times, as with Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer at Phoenix or Kevin Harvick wrecking the field at Talladega, when they’ve gotten away with it. Put another way, they’ve had the proverbial good time.

In the most recent case-du-jour, the one that has Kenseth in trouble the whole issue started with five laps to go at Kansas Speedway. It was then when the wily veteran was fending off Logano, the young pretender to the crown for the race lead. Logano, the quicker car on the track at the time, decided enough was enough and spun out Kenseth; that got the party well and truly started. From there matters escalated, fueled by the 24-hour Twitter cycle and more chatter than a security analyst would know what to do with, until it ended with revenge being exacted and two junked cars in the SAFER barrier at Martinsville, the best track in the sport. (Side note: Only in NASCAR could the smallest, flattest and slowest track produce the most compelling racing each and every time we visit.)

For Kenseth, pending what will likely be an unsuccessful appeal, it will mean the end to a 16-year, 571-race consecutive streak of Cup races. That’s second only to Sunday’s ecstatic race winner Gordon, who has just three races left in his illustrious Hall of Fame career. But you suspect that while Kenseth might never utter another word about it in public, he will be satisfied with taking his shot – that he adhered to the driver code. Kenseth will take his licks, watch a couple races from his couch and be back next year, a perennial threat to win it all. It wouldn’t even surprise me to see him return and win the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What price, I wonder, would people pay for Kenseth and Logano to be racing for position in the waning laps? That should get Brian France his mythical game 7 moment.

I’m not criticizing NASCAR for making a call – the sanctioning body felt it had to do something – but what concerns me most about this decision is the dangerous precedent it sets. What defines the invisible line between right and wrong? Is it only something that can occur when you’re racing for the lead? Are there new parameters? Will NASCAR share these with fans, teams, drivers or maybe the driver council?

Of course not. It’ll argue that each case is unique and therefore needs to be judged on its own merit. But in this particular instance that’s a line of argument I find hard to reconcile with a two-race ban. Context is key; Kenseth was reacting to Logano’s decision to dump him and all but end what had looked every inch like it could be a championship season. I don’t think Logano had to apologize for his actions but he could have been a lot less smug and he could have made even a token effort to reach out (something he clearly didn’t do.) Might that have made a difference? Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon, prior to Martinsville, said as much in media interviews. And those are two individuals that know a thing or two about what it means to be a NASCAR driver.

Mind you, if you’re Danica Patrick, it’s absolutely fine; you can clearly say on a public channel of communications that you’re going to wreck a driver and then go ahead and – sort of – do it, then get away with what amounts to, for her at least, a paltry fine and an irrelevant loss of points. Let’s be fair: if she finishes the season 24th or 27th, it matters not one iota. She’ll be back next year tangling with David Gilliland for 29th place, two laps down. (Side note number two: if you’re going to have at it, Danica, have at it properly).

So therein for me lies the problem: Two similar, unrelated incidents in the same race and two completely different decisions. And that’s what concerns me the most, because it starts to border on the farcical, and that’s not good for the sport at all. Sunday’s race was a prime example of what NASCAR deserved to get with this new playoff format. The pressures on each of the Chase drivers in these small, sample size segments make for desperate decisions and courses of action that might not happen in the regular season. In its desire for a winner-take-all final race, there were always going to be consequences. And those consequences came home to roost in a style that did no one any favors – least of all the powers that be.

In the time I’ve been following NASCAR I’ve had maybe a handful of moments when I’ve considered jacking it in and doing something else on Sunday afternoons. I’ve spent thousands of hours writing columns, speaking on radio shows and generally evangelizing a sport I’ve come to deeply love. But I have to be honest: Over the last couple days I very seriously considered giving it up. If the governing body is going to disregard context and consistency, instead setting dangerous precedents that it’ll now have to enforce, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it all anymore. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that. Decisions that have elements of farce turn fans away, and let’s be fair, that’s not something NASCAR can afford to do right now.

I hope this decision doesn’t come back to haunt the sport, but I can’t help but feel it just might.

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About Danny Peters

Avatar
Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

19 comments

  1. Avatar

    ….and for 1 speech Ricky Craven gave about “driver code” every one else of his peers lambasted Matt’s move and wanted Nascar to send a harsh message. Regardless of who you like or dislike, I am hard pressed to see so many see it as the same occurrence. If Matty did his mental relapse on Junior the tide would turn 2000 degress against Matt. Also given this format and the expense of cars drivers do not own, that payback bs. was just that bs. Driver code is fine for the guy who isn’t involved, as soon it happen to them that “code” is flushed down the toilet. Oh please. The campaign waged by the Old Bitties Club is in full swing, and the propaganda by most accounts has been a smashing success.

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      The lunatics are running the asylum. And they shouldn’t be.

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      Junior would have been smart enough to apologize immediately and wouldn’t have had any smugness to him. Your precious Joey isn’t that smart.

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      I respect that Craven is calling out Nascar… most members of the media don’t have the guts to that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make him right.

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      KB, You would never see Matt doing that to Junior becauses Junior races people clean. When he does cause something he always steps up and takes the blame. When have you ever heard Joey take the blame for anything? Maybe someday Joey will grow up learn the meaning of RESPECT. But that may never happen if Nascar keeps closing their eyes to the real Joey Lagano, but then they are maybe afraid that his dad will come after them.

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        There are so many things wrong with that statement. Dale Sr was worshiped for doing things that Logano did to Kenseth at Kansas and never apologized for any of it. And he did it often. Now Logano has no “respect” for people because he did it?

        Its obvious you’re on the Earnhardt fan club and can’t see the hypocrisy of your statement. Like I have said from the beginning, remove the driver names and sponsors and most people would say it was a racing incident. But because of who and what is involved, people lose their critical thinking skills in a hurry.

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      Ya Craven’s peers.Jarrett, McReynolds and Petty. A bunch of PC hypocrites paid to toe the nascar line. Please stop your whining.

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    What if? What if NASCAR had RULES? And what if those rules didn’t change week to week? And what if NASCAR enforced those rules? What? NO I’m not on drugs. And yes I know none of that ever has or ever will happen.

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    The one thing that amazes me about this whole situation is that opinions have varied drastically among very well respected people in the sport.

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    Danny… are you living under a rock?

    “From all points across the NASCAR diaspora, the instantaneous reaction to Kenseth’s punishment after his wreck with Joey Logano last weekend was one of shock and surprise at the severity of the sentence”

    If that’s true, it’s only because most fans didn’t think Nascar had the balls to give one of their top drivers more than a slap on the wrist. Read the comments on some of your colleage’s columns. Most readers felt Matt’s punishment was deserved. A fine and a loss of points are all non-punishments to a top driver already out of the chase. Probation? That’s a joke.

    I will agree that Nascar isn’t consistent when it comes to enforcing the rules, but that doesn’t make Matt’s actions any less wrong. He’s sitting out two races because he decided to deliberately wreck another driver and end his day. If that doesn’t warrant suspension then nothing does.

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      Carl, I don’t know what columns you read, but some of the comments I’ve read on ESPN, FOX Sports, and Yahoo want someone to put Joey into the wall in such a way that he doesn’t walk away! And reading responses from one or two individuals on here, they share that sentiment. And that is disturbing that these people are so blinded by their hatred for one driver that they wish serious harm on him.

      There is someone else this all reminds me of. It is someone by the name of Waltrip, who came on the scene and shot off his mouth as he was going to make people forget who Richard Petty was. Only thing, Waltrip could back up his mouth with his driving. Yes, Joey is cocky, but then again, Ned Jarrett said that about Fred Lorenzen. What bothers people like a couple on here is that Joey is winning races. And didn’t someone make a comment recently that this was the reason Jeff Gordon was hated so much in his day? And wasn’t it kissed off to those fans who hated Gordon so much were just jealous that Gordon was so much better than their favorite driver? Could that be the case with Logano?

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      Danny, You must be very selective in the sites you choose to read. All the polls I have seen (except maybe on Nascar.com which I don’t look at) are on Matt’s side about 88 per cent to 15 -16 percent for other choices. Where are your thoughts for Joey taking Matt out of the chase and then Joey and Kes jacking up the restart to wreck Matt again who had a very good chance to win the race. If you are going to punish one punish them all.Favoritism never goes over well in any sport.

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        @Carl D – I think everyone was surprised (albeit for differing reasons) at the two race ban. I didn’t see anyone say it should have been more, for example. (Said from under my rock.. :)

        @Ken – nice points re: the historical context. I was saying to someone today that it feels a lot like Brad in 2012 when he won the title.

        @Tykie – I obviously did a bad job with my column. To summarize: the penalty was way, way too harsh. Matt did what he had to do and I think he made the right choice to do it in the way he did it at the slowest track in the sport.

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          While I don’t agree with what Matt did and I do agree with his suspension, I understand that we all have various opinions on the way it was handled. The only good thing about this whole mess is that my vocabulary has been enhanced. Yes, I looked up “diaspora”. Scattered colonies of Jews? That’s gotta be the first time that word has ever been used in a Nascar article.

          Ken… I Don’t read Nascar comments on general sports websites like ESPN. You don’t get informed comments from casual fans who think restrictor plates are what people on a diet eat dinner off of.

          Tykie.. There’a world of difference in what Joey did in Kansas and what Matt did at Martinsville. It’s been discussed ad nausem by every writer on Frontstretch.

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    @John Q – funny stuff, sir.

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    A “sport” shouldn’t be run by mob rule. Rather it should have rules, consistently enforced, regardless of the personalities involved. Until you have that this crap won’t go away. It will rear its ugly head again at some point, and the same old arguments will be trotted out.

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    Why is this author speculating on where to draw the line? When they announced the penalty, they told everyone. My guess is if we didn’t have eliminations, the penalty probably wouldn’t have been as stiff. But with eliminations, it impacted the championship. Plus it was the leader of the race when it happened.

    Do we really want non chase drivers taking out chase drivers every week with no repercussions? Or lapped cars wrecking the leader? That’s the precedent that would have been set if they did nothing. Why can’t people see that? Is nascar consistent with their enforcement of rules? Hell no. But this situation is not like the others simply due to eliminations in the chase. I criticize nascar often, but this one they got right.