CNN. ESPN. Good Morning America. Everywhere you turn this month, NASCAR has jumped to the front page of the news cycle as emotional outbursts have produced two-minute YouTube clips that cause millions of potential fans to pay attention. Don’t confuse it with the Jerry Springer Show; these men were clearly meant to drive, not box, as evidenced by 42-year-old Matt Kenseth’s recent headlock that looked more like playground roughhousing than grown men attempting Friday Night Fights. However, the way in which drivers have gone busy pulling their hair out has been enough to make waves, with catfights crawling NASCAR to at least a temporary share of the sports news cycle with that elephant otherwise known as the NFL.
Up to now those incidents, like the Charlotte pushing-and-shoving between Brad Keselowski and Kenseth, have had limited impact. But Sunday night’s post-race brawl at Texas, where 43-year-old Jeff Gordon left with a bruised upper lip and Keselowski can be seen taking punches, have resulted in high-end visuals posted everywhere from Instagram to some random dude’s Twitter account is causing a whole lot of water cooler talk. A lot of people are busy shaking their heads, gathering information while wondering, “What’s going on? Why is everyone in this sport going crazy … and should I turn on the television to watch the madness?”
Gordon and Keselowski will tell you it’s idiotic emotion runneth over in no uncertain terms, with each driver blaming the other, Judge Judy style. Calling Keselowski a “dipshit” on national television is out of character for Gordon, a four-time champ, but after all it was his car sitting 29th after contact on the penultimate restart that sent him tumbling from the front row into a Texas tailspin. In contrast, Keselowski kept his cool after the race, playing the role of punching bag before calmly explaining his style of racing is derived from role models Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Ayrton Senna, each one of the world’s best. Both, he claimed, did whatever it took to win — and to take this Chase title, you’ve got to make the most of any opening, even if it means bumping fenders and grinding sheet metal, which in this case turned Gordon’s tire into junk.
“A little bit of rubbing is how this sport was created,” he said, using a third-place finish to climb his way back into the title conversation. “And probably how it should move forward. The sport, specifically the driving corps, is stuck in the year 1999, 2000. They race differently than that. That’s their right. But what they want me to be is a loser, and I’m not here to lose.
“I am doing everything I can to win this championship, racing at 100 percent, and that is something I am not going to be ashamed for.”
Quick summary from Keselowski: I need to be aggressive, Gordon wants everyone to play nice, that’s not what the fans want (read: it’s driving them away) nor is it a method where I wind up in Victory Lane. So I’m going to bump the living daylights out of you. Understood? Great. Now let me rough you up on track and hope your own “play nice” moral code keeps you from wrecking me back. Hey, it worked for Earnhardt …
So is Keselowski’s philosophy right? Is slamming sheet metal — regardless of outcome — what’s needed to bring NASCAR a brand new fan base? Depends on who you ask; 43 teams are quickly developing 43 versions of how to treat each other during this Chase. With how you cross the line a moving target, drivers and crewmembers can only agree on just one running theme: NASCAR’s new playoff format has driven the title contenders crazy.
“It’s being played rough,” said Sunday’s runner-up finisher, Kevin Harvick, who also earned the title of “riot instigator” after a simple shove to get Keselowski’s attention after the race. “It’s one of those deals where everybody is trying to get everything they can.”
“There wasn’t a lot of respect out there,” added Chaser Ryan Newman, who survived his own four-wide contact with Kenseth, a tire rub and near-wrecking in traffic to come home 15th. “We saw that before, during, and after the race.”
Clearly, no one’s playing nice anymore, a philosophy that will invoke some sort of emotion from the fans after far too many races this decade have left them falling asleep. How that’ll impact ratings — whether it will cause more hysteria then hatred — is a bit of a mystery. All you can say for certain is with more emotion during this Chase than any other and the final outcome in doubt every lap, it tells me NASCAR will keep this format, clinging to it stubbornly no matter how much the actual ratings decline.
Honestly, with an explosive ending on tap in Homestead, Fla., I think things are poised to get better, not worse. Sports are entertainment after all, and the drama of “good vs. evil” is a much better storyline to hook people than “nice vs. politically correct.” Just ask the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, one of sport’s most righteous yet least popular champions; the NFL, whose sport is derived from people knocking the crap out of one another; or Jimmie Johnson, whose clean-cut image has been synonymous with stock car racing’s decline. It’s a pattern sports fans struggle to admit to but whose cycle clearly repeats itself. Isn’t the NFL doing just fine despite ignorance regarding both domestic violence and on-field head trauma?
NASCAR, whose product and politics have combined to put the sport in peril, is simply saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” To earn the loyalty of the ADD generation, the sanctioning body don’t care about professional respect inside the garage, it just needs to grab peoples’ attention. A four-hour, mostly awful 500-mile race at Texas looks awesome if you see the final 50 laps, two minutes of madness post-race, and the perfect mix of sound bites.
It’s enough to make anyone stop and look. Will the final two weeks of competition, (hopefully) leading to a deserving champion, be enough to have them taking a seat? The future of the sport, gambled heavily on this latest iteration of the Chase, likely depends on it. For better or worse, Brian France’s legacy stands before us: frantic double-file restarts, engineered “Game 7” moments and a ripoff of the Jerry Springer Show.
Wonder what Earnhardt and Senna would think of that?
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: What happens now?
Take a deep breath and let the dust settle from NASCAR’s biggest brawl in ages. Here’s what we have on paper now heading to Phoenix: the difference between first and eighth in the Cup Series standings is just 18 points. Harvick and Keselowski, once thought to be in “must-win” situations could easily make the final cut, leaping from eighth to fourth with solid, top-5 performances. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, tied for the top spot, could slip out with one bad pit stop. It’s a jumbled mess, with no guarantees and a lot of drivers breathing new life.
“A lot happened at the end of this race,” said Harvick, “And we were able to put ourselves back in the hunt.”
A lot? That would be the understatement of the year. Consider that at Texas’ halfway point, Gordon, Kenseth, Logano, Ryan Newman and Harvick were sitting pretty in second through sixth on the pylon. Had the race ended that way — without a record 13 caution flags — there would be a clear separation between top and bottom four. Gordon, Kenseth, Newman and Logano would be on cruise control this week while Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski and Carl Edwards could have been forced into “win-at-all-costs” mode.
Now, a jumbled series of results leaves everyone with a potential path into the Chase. Add in some ugly emotions from Sunday night’s fight and Phoenix just got more unpredictable than ever.
“We are just going to take this fire that’s inside of us and this momentum,” claimed Gordon. “And we are going to take to Phoenix and win that race.”
What’s unknown is whether Gordon will be fined or docked points for his post-race cuss word on national television along with his role in sparking Sunday’s brouhaha. Penalties won’t be announced until Tuesday at the earliest and could involve anyone from Keselowski to Harvick to even a crewman from Kasey Kahne’s team who was not involved yet inexplicably jumped in the fracas to throw some sucker punches. The last few weeks, NASCAR has been letting most of the post-race fireworks slide, refusing to take away points and resorting to nothing more than fines and probations. My gut says that’s what it’ll do this time, siding with national attention rather than regulating emotions that are bordering on out of control. The sport’s VP on rules, Robin Pemberton, said they’ll look over everything and that “throwing a punch” is what’s over the line. But there’s ways around that definition and it’s unlikely they’ll let a title spot be decided over fisticuffs and/or swearing, like the 25-point deduction for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Victory Lane interview at Talladega a decade ago.
SECOND GEAR: The other side of NASCAR gone crazy: Debris.
Lost in the madness of Sunday’s finish was an inexplicable seven straight cautions for nothing more than debris on the racetrack. While a few of those could be condoned — with drivers like Josh Wise and Kyle Busch smacking the wall shortly before each yellow was thrown — it seemed to be a whole lot of bunching up the field for, well, nothing. Texas had high speeds but a high amount of single-file racing, tires not falling off enough to the point NASCAR officials were seeking any excuse to bunch up the field. The double-file restarts in the end caused their intended chaos but also wreaked of a little manipulation, while teams ran out of tires because of so many yellow-flag stoppages. The endgame scramble resulted in mistakes, like Logano’s team missing lugnuts during a pit stop and several teams switching to scuffs (i.e., used tires) with disastrous results.
“It’s kind of a sad situation when you run out of tires like that,” explained Newman after the race. “I wish NASCAR had given us more tires. When they keep throwing cautions like that that were totally unnecessary, and there’s not debris on the racetrack and no reason to throw it … we need to keep racing. It’s sad to see but that’s the way they’ve been playing it.”
Such outward criticism of NASCAR officials is rare these days and could result in a fine for Newman. But a lot of drivers and fans feel the same way which makes you wonder how Homestead will be handled in two weeks. Could a late, unnecessary “judgment caution” be called for a hot dog wrapper sitting in the middle of the backstretch? Will 36 races and nine months come down to which lane you choose on a green-white-checker finish on a restart? That doesn’t sound like the right way to decide a title, but it’s entirely possible the way things are heading under this format.
THIRD GEAR: Oh, and Jimmie won the race
In the midst of all the chaos, a familiar face straightened out a Chase gone wrong. Jimmie Johnson simply dominated, leading 191 of 341 laps in earning his third straight Texas victory in the fall race. The No. 48 was simply unstoppable, credited to a Homestead test this week where the duo of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus finally found the speed they’d been lacking.
“We really got our car under me like I look for and what I need,” said Johnson. “We brought all those things here, qualified third and won the race. We are back on track. Unfortunately, we didn’t find this stuff a month or two ago but that is the way racing goes.”
Johnson, with a stellar track record at Phoenix could now be counted on to play spoiler down the stretch. If anything, their sudden burst of speed could be helpful to the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver remaining in the Chase, Gordon, who’s earned an average finish of 25.3 in the last three Phoenix fall events.
FOURTH GEAR: A future force to be reckoned with?
Sunday marked the debut of Tony Gibson on top of the pit box for Kurt Busch. After serving as Danica Patrick’s mastermind, for the better part of two years in Cup the head wrench, who has years of valuable experience, immediately brought a spark to the No. 41. Busch qualified fourth, was competitive all day (leading 15 laps) and finished a strong eighth.
“A great first day,” said Busch. “I love the team; I love the guys. We are going to be good. We just have to work out the details.”
Compare that to Danica Patrick who is now paired with Busch’s former crew chief Daniel Knost. The No. 10 team suffered through a Texas nightmare. Outside the top 30 for much of the event, she eventually wrecked the car, losing nine laps and struggled to 36th. It’s the third straight crash for a driver who’s suddenly forced to take a step back while Stewart-Haas Racing refocuses on Busch, sponsored by co-owner Gene Haas’ company Haas Automation. Looks like it pays to get backed by the right people.
Kyle Busch, who was fourth Sunday, nearly pulled off a Texas trifecta after winning both the Truck and Nationwide series races over the course of the weekend. Busch now has a NASCAR record 70 Nationwide Series victories and earned the 100th for parent company Joe Gibbs Racing. … Elliott Sadler’s move to Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series beginning in 2015 has some Sprint Cup implications. RFR would eventually like to expand back to four cars at the premier level and sponsor OneMain Financial has the cash reserves to move up over time. It was the right move for Sadler, whose tenure at JGR never resulted in a promotion to its new Cup ride. That goes to Carl Edwards beginning in 2015. … Qualifying speeds of over 200 mph at Texas are a clear indicator that these cars are simply running too fast. NASCAR is looking to slow them down with a new rules package, hoping slower speeds might lead to sustained side-by-side competition.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.