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The Power of Payback: Will NASCAR Respond to a Knockout Punch?

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Joey Logano, NASCAR’s youngest title contender at 25 years old is entering his prime. Earning a season-high six victories this year, he was on the verge of a seventh at Martinsville, a fourth straight triumph that would propel him to the Chase’s final four and a shot at his first Cup championship. Even if that doesn’t happen this year Logano, armed with the powerful partnership of Team Penske, should be set to deliver multiple race wins and title opportunities for years to come.

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Compare that to Matt Kenseth, age 43 and now 12 years removed from his last and only Cup Series trophy. The great Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the last of his seven championships at 43; Martinsville winner and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon will be calling it quits altogether at age 44. Not since Bobby Allison in 1983 has someone won the coveted series championship as old as Kenseth will be in 2016. Next season could even be the veteran’s last full-time drive in the series; young Erik Jones has been signed by Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth’s employer, to run for Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series beginning in 2017. With Carl Edwards signed long term along with Kyle Busch at JGR it could mean Kenseth or Denny Hamlin will need to be pushed aside.

This year was an opportunity lost for Kenseth, a five-time winner this year who was a popular title pick both inside the garage and amongst the media until Logano spun him out in the waning laps at Kansas. Whether Logano did it intentionally is debatable; both drivers were racing hard for the win. However, you can’t debate the end result of Kenseth failing to make the Eliminator Round (final eight drivers) now left to “play out the string” these final four weeks of the season. It gives context as to why, in the waning laps Sunday, Kenseth’s wounded Toyota slammed into Logano. The contact sent both cars careening hard into the outside wall, making the rumors of payback a reality while robbing Logano of his win and perhaps a shot at the 2015 title.

“You never like to be in these situations,” said Kenseth, whose maneuver while several laps off the pace sent the crowd into a frenzy. “They really stink, to be honest with you but sometimes you get put in these spots and you’ve got to try to keep respect in the garage area.”

Kenseth was clearly fed up with both the Kansas incident and a crash Sunday in which Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, lost control and slid into Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota. The resulting damage made it the fourth time in four weeks Kenseth was wrecked. That type of track record will frustrate any driver; Logano became the epicenter of unstoppable anger. But did Kenseth’s move designed to knock a fellow competitor out of the Chase cross a line?

“Just a complete coward move,” Logano said. “I don’t have anything else to say. It’s a chicken-you-know-what move to completely take out the leader when your race is over.”

Part of the problem here is Kenseth, now out of the title hunt has little if anything to lose. A consolation prize of fifth in points means little in NASCAR’s new playoff format. Even a suspension, as unlikely as one appears to be coming, is possible, but in the wake of this incident that would do little to change the outcome of Kenseth’s year. Five victories is an outstanding resume; sitting out the next few weeks won’t change that. Sponsors won’t balk, either especially considering the buzz and positive reinforcement coming from fans believing Kenseth took “an eye for an eye.”

In some ways, the Kenseth-Logano conflict is actually a result of the new Chase and NASCAR CEO Brian France’s idea of “Boys, have at it.” If you’re going to set up a system where wrecking a driver can cost him the title, ramping up the pressure in this three-race mini-series, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Winning at all costs can lead to wrecks and hurt feelings; when faced with the same situation, what would you do considering millions of dollars are on the line?

“The structure we have around us is not very strong as far as an authority figure saying, ‘No, you cannot do that anymore,’” Hamlin said Sunday. “It’s just tough for us because this [system] is what’s been created. I love Brian France but when he says drivers are doing what they have to do, it seems like it’s promoting this type of racing so that’s tough to crown a true champion when things go like this.”

Can NASCAR rein in this type of behavior? Not unless they change a system automatically designed to produce a “Game 7” moment every year. That’s the downside of injected drama; creating an environment of constant stress will cause desperate drivers to do desperate things. The behavior we saw Sunday, coming from a former champ with two decades of experience is a classic example of how it can all spiral out of control.

Through The Gears we go...

FIRST GEAR: A Legendary Victory for a NASCAR Legend

Logano’s wreck, combined with the resulting crash between Kenseth and Keselowski put the Martinsville race squarely in Jeff Gordon’s lap. Suddenly, a driver who had struggled to put together top-5 finishes this year came away with a victory at the best possible time, guaranteeing a chance to fight for a championship in the series finale.

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“It’s the sweetest, most amazing feeling,” said Gordon, whose last Cup title came back in 2001. “I am so proud of this team.”

Gordon’s energy was a throwback to better days, his prime in the 1990s when he took no prisoners and dominated the Cup circuit to the tune of three titles and a modern-era record 13 victories in 1998. Running around like a kid on Christmas, Gordon mingled with fans in the stands after the win and jumped up and down, screaming wildly while acknowledging the teamwork it took to drag this team out of a season-long slump and in position to challenge for a title.

“I knew that if we could just get in this position, we could do something special,” Gordon said. “Man, this has turned into a fairytale year. I cannot believe it.”

Gordon now has the full resources of four-car Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal – he’s the only one of them left in title contention – and was arguably the fastest car at Homestead last November. Yes, he would be the series’ most surprising title winner since Benny Parsons in 1973 but don’t count Gordon out.

SECOND GEAR: Will Kevin Harvick be Next?

With Logano down for the count after Martinsville all eyes turn to not only NASCAR’s reaction but Kevin Harvick. Sources in the garage area claim there are at least half a dozen drivers angry over the way last week’s race at Talladega ended, believing Harvick wrecked intentionally and manipulated the outcome of the Chase. While the veteran ran decently at Martinsville, evading any payback and running eighth, he’s not out of the woods quite yet.

Phoenix, a track Harvick has been dominant at for much of the past two years, is a place he’s expected to win and lock himself inside the Homestead final four. That race in two weeks would almost certainly be where any angry rival would attempt to take him out; it gives more importance to NASCAR’s decision surrounding the Kenseth-Logano incident. If Kenseth gets suspended for say six races, an unlikely outcome but one that could have an effect on 2016, it scares others off from attempting the same move on someone else.

THIRD GEAR: Martinsville Makes It Better

Last week it seemed the sport hit rock bottom with its controversial ending at Talladega. Sunday, though was NASCAR at its best, short track racing that resulted in plenty of side-by-side action, 21 lead changes and the type of parity that led to the sport’s explosive growth in the first place.

Two non-Chasers, Jamie McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger,factored into the battle for the win. Other underdogs like Justin Allgaier and Cole Whitt earned top-20 results and much-needed TV time. Drivers who were knocked back in the pack, a result of various circumstances could drive up through the field naturally (Hamlin, winding up third after a wreck and multiple pit road penalties wound up third as an example).

With this type of racing, leading to a standing ovation by the crowd when Gordon crossed the checkered flag, it’s amazing NASCAR has chosen to stick to its schedule and not add more short track races in 2016 and beyond. Only six of the 36 races are held on tracks a mile or less, a number I feel must change for NASCAR to start rebuilding its audience.

FOURTH GEAR: Logano Not the Only Chase TKO

Five of the eight Chasers were involved in wrecks at Martinsville. Logano was joined by Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Kurt Busch as drivers getting themselves in trouble.

Edwards made the most impressive comeback of the quintet. Sustaining damage in a mid-race spin involving his own teammate, the No. 19 Toyota fell a lap down at one point but earned it back during a series of late cautions. A drive up to 14th kept them within striking distance of the top 4 in points with two races left to close the gap.

Kyle Busch, climbing back to a strong fifth also was cool, calm and collected Sunday. The “old Kyle” from a few years ago would have lost it after spinning out; instead, a more mature 30-year-old buckled down and busted his way forward. The No. 18 Toyota team cleared a very important hurdle and may be in the best position to make the final four among the remaining seven title contenders.

OVERDRIVE

Clint Bowyer, dead last after wrecking at Martinsville, is clearly a “lame duck” driver at this point for Michael Waltrip Racing. Knocked out after the first round of the playoffs, he’s sitting a distant 16th in points and has just one top-10 finish in the postseason... Tony Stewart ran a quiet 10th on Sunday, avoiding most of the Martinsville mayhem while perhaps building towards a better team for 2016. Some last-minute changes, some of which Stewart credited to himself changed the car around after Happy Hour and left the No. 14 car running strong... Martin Truex Jr. led 27 laps Sunday and is now just short of setting a new career high in laps led (563). Sixth on Sunday, the consistency of 21 top-10 finishes is the reason he and single-car outfit Furniture Row Racing have been able to run step-for-step with the big dogs.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images. Other photos by ASP Inc.)