Let’s dispense with the typical flowery introduction or using irrelevant song lyrics to frame a story. Instead, as a break from what has become the norm in NASCAR, let’s speak with consistency and clarity:
NASCAR’s actions governing their sport the past three weeks are detrimental to stock car racing.
Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR suspended Matt Kenseth for two races following his actions at Martinsville this past Sunday. Kenseth’s car was in a terrible state of disrepair and he turned right into Joey Logano, driving him into the first turn wall. Having exacted revenge following late-race contact at Kansas and other perceived injustices at Talladega, the sport has Kenseth sitting at home watching the Packers the next two weekends. They think it gives him time to ponder the repercussions of taking matters into his own hands, affecting the futures of a Chase competitor along the way.
On SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Wednesday, NASCAR CEO Brian France stated that Kenseth was suspended for impacting the Chase. “Going back to Richmond, we’ve been very clear when anybody in the industry, any driver or participant intentionally tries to alter the outcome of events or championships, that crosses a different line than a racing problem between two drivers,” he said. “So, obviously the significance of what was on the line had to be taken into consideration.’’
Kevin Harvick, however, remains in contention inside the Eliminator Round of The Chase after intentionally causing a wreck involving half of the field at Talladega a week earlier.
Meanwhile, in the same Martinsville race, Danica Patrick attempted to retaliate against David Gilliland after contact early in the race sent Patrick spinning. In a battle of the leper with the most fingers, Patrick had actually passed Gilliland for position but didn’t recognize his car as it had a Jerry Cook tribute paint scheme. She then waited for the No. 38 Ford to come around to try to wreck him – doing a piss-poor job of executing it in the process.
Patrick’s fine was 25 points and 50,000 in GoDaddy dollars.
Have drivers wrecked others before during the Chase? Most certainly! Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer’s season-long rivalry overflowed at Phoenix in 2012, boiling over when early contact with Bowyer inspired Gordon to lay in wait and hook Bowyer head-on into the third turn wall. What followed was a red flag and Bowyer sprinting through the garage area to fight Gordon – who was being restrained from fighting Bowyer’s team. Bowyer had entered that race third in points, 36 out of first. At the time of the wreck he was ahead of eventual champion Brad Keselowski, a driver who also narrowly avoided being collected.
The penalty for that incident? 25 points and $100,000. To review, that’s three drivers. Two similar penalties. One dramatically different outcome.
At Talladega two weeks ago, it was well documented that Harvick’s car was in a terrible state much like Kenseth’s car at Martinsville. While Kenseth’s car was missing a hood and sat nine laps down, Harvick’s 200mph bullet was now a 50mph slug. Unable to accelerate to keep pace on the restart, radio traffic among his team and others indicated the No. 4 car would intentionally cause a wreck to prematurely end the race, solidifying Harvick’s spot in the Chase.
As the green flag dropped, Harvick hooked Trevor Bayne (with external and in-car cameras showing you in 1080p), sending him back and forth across the track and eliminating over 12 cars. Two of them were Chase contenders in Denny Hamlin and Kenseth as the yellow flew, ending the race prematurely and eliminating potential winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Afterwards, the refrain from the media was “he did what he needed to do.” By Tuesday, Harvick was stating “I don’t feel I need to defend myself” while sitting calm and collected knowing he had the protection of “no penalty” from NASCAR.
Oh, OK. I guess anything goes then? That sounds an awful lot like premeditation, intentionally causing a wreck, manipulating an outcome, and affecting the plight of three Chase competitors – while ruining the afternoon for over 150,000 fans.
So why the double standard? Kyle Busch opined after the race Sunday that it depends on whose name is above the door. Perhaps it also has to do with whose name is on the quarterpanels or on the hood.
NASCAR continues to be a sponsor and ratings-challenged sport, increasing costs coupled with hushed whispers regarding the tenuous state of the economy. Anheuser-Busch reduced their sponsorship to just 12 races next season and other major sponsors (Home Depot, the National Guard) have left entirely. Ford has realistically one competitive operation at the moment and hasn’t won a championship since (ironically) Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004.
Now, were Kenseth’s actions justified? Much has been made of “driver code” the last few days. If you wrong another driver, contact him soon to discuss the incident or at least send some overtures through the media to atone for your sins and avoid further escalation of hostilities. Kenseth and Logano were both protégé’s of Mark Martin, a man who followed that code to a fault. Logano clearly could have showed some humility after Kansas; after all, being radio tough guy isn’t going to win you any friends in this sport. Instead, Logano seems to feel the need to constantly defend himself ever since his perceived softness became an issue five years ago.
Having your old man still troll the pits for you at 25 years old doesn’t help much either.
That isn’t to say that Kenseth is without blame in his career. While I feel that Kansas was a racing incident, it wasn’t much different than how Kenseth scored his first win at Rockingham in 1998 in what was the Busch Grand National Series, nudging Tony Stewart (in a Shell-sponsored car) out of the way on the final turn. Yeah, the stakes are higher and Smoke hung onto it, but the intent was similar; back then, not everyone was thrilled with Kenseth’s move. This ending was back when the “Bump and Run” wasn’t celebrated as it is today.
Kenseth also had a couple of run-ins with Gordon in 2006, spinning him at Bristol and then having the favor returned at Chicagoland Speedway.
Normal tit for tat racing incidents, most of them – but no suspensions warranted or applied.
In this instance, I think Kenseth has suffered enough. Logano’s action at Kansas cost Kenseth more than this suspension will. Factor in the race purse, contract performance incentives for advancing in the Chase, let alone the monies that follow winning the title or finishing in the top four in points at year’s end and it’s understandable to see why he’d be a little upset. That financial hit is coupled with his perpetual Penske run-ins during the Chase the past two years; um, is it really paranoia if they’re out to get you? We all saw how Gordon went after Keselowski last year at Texas – and that was just after slight contact on a restart.
We would later find out why Four-Time was so incensed. His final season was just a few months away. Might Kenseth be in a similar situation? He is but one year younger than Gordon and his son Ross has a burgeoning racing career. At age 43, he won’t be driving forever and knows the clock is ticking. Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing, which had been his home since he came to the Cup Series in 2000 for a shot at winning another championship. As the light on his career begins to wane, so is his patience with new-school drivers, who seem to act more Senna and Prost than Waltrip and Earnhardt.
In the same vein, fans’ patience with NASCAR is petering out due to their recent bipolar approach to driver conduct and rules enforcement.
One day it’s, “Boys, have at it” and, “Quintessential racing;” the next it’s furrowed brows and hand-wringing, pontificating about safety concerns and the integrity (sic) of the Chase. The fact their flip-flop comes one week after a last-lap wreck intentionally caused by a Chaser about to be eliminated, at a track synonymous with launching cars into the fence, makes matters ten times worse.
Now, is wrecking a guy who’s leading while nine laps down acceptable? Absolutely not.
But is shrugging your shoulders when a driver causes a wreck to their benefit following a rules change brought about in the spirit of safety, glossing it over with “he did what he needed to do” legitimate?
Naturally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. My concern is for the future of the sport and paying homage to the past. Neither incident is reflective of NASCAR’s heritage or history – despite what the sugary memories of yesteryear or some clichéd prepared statements might conjure up. Drivers would tangle battling for a win, after exiting their cars, or perhaps in the process of being lapped, but not to the extent we’ve seen the past three weeks. If that was the case, Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, and Bobby Allison would be suspended from any future Hall of Fame festivities.
Both parties have escalated things and the situation could have been handled differently. Of note, both Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs have been strangely silent on the happenings involving their drivers. Will that need to change for the sport to start fighting back? My issue is with the continued mixed message and different rules for different drivers that has been a point of contention the past few years. It has now officially reached the height of hypocrisy.
Wreck one guy, you get suspended for two races. Take out half of the field, manipulate the finish by ending the race prematurely, and you advance to the Eliminator Round.
Makes sense. Viva la NASCAR.
Vito Pugliese is a former full-time Frontstretch writer and occasional contributor to our site. Follow @VitoPugliese on Twitter.