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Playing Nice Is The New Norm In Sprint Cup

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 7 2013

Fenders still dent and sparks still fly but racing has gotten more polite over the years. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

RICHMOND, Va. – Any long-time NASCAR fan knows the way competitors race each other in the Sprint Cup Series has changed, but that couldn’t have been any more evident than when several drivers vying for a position in the Chase said they wouldn’t wreck a peer to gain one of those coveted positions.

It’s an attitude those racing in NASCAR’s formative years simply wouldn’t understand.

In the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to run each other out of the dusty bullrings that often had no barriers. The art of moving a fellow competitor out of the way to gain a position demonstrated a driver’s talent. It was something that turned a driver into a hero or a villain, especially at the weekly short tracks.

Even in the 1980s, especially at Bristol, the bump-and-run was immensely popular with fans. In fact, fans still talk about the Bristol race when Dale Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte off the fourth turn as they headed for the checkered flag. However, it’s a tactic that many of today’s drivers would shun. They maintain it doesn’t take talent to drive through somebody.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes many drivers’ attitudes reflect the way society has changed.

“There’s still personalities in the sport that would race like that with no guilt whatsoever, no remorse, no concern,” Earnhardt Jr. said before Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, “but I think as a whole society we’ve kind of shifted in the other direction. We haven’t gotten more aggressive for sure and I don’t really know what plays a role in that, whether that’s something that starts from the very beginning of your upbringing.”

Earnhardt Jr. believes the aggressiveness shown on the track depends on the drivers and the situations involved.

“You got guys out there that really don’t like each other,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When you can put them in the perfect storm where they’re the two on the stage at that moment with a lap to go, you’re going to get the fireworks that you want to see. But when you put other individuals together that have a lot of respect for each other, have been somewhat friendly off the race track, they’re more than likely not going to run over each other.”

Ryan Newman agrees with Earnhardt Jr.

“If that guy roughs you up to get to where you are, maybe,” Newman said. “If that person is the one that caused you mischief earlier in the season, maybe. If that person is somebody you extremely respect, know they wouldn’t do that to you, maybe not. It’s so situational.”

Fans possibly saw the beginning of the attitude change in the 2002 All-Star race when Earnhardt Jr. had the opportunity to wreck Newman on the final lap and he didn’t take it. Instead, he backed off and let Newman regain control of his sideways car on the backstretch. Newman won and Earnhardt Jr. finished second. Today, with only two victories in the last six years, Earnhardt Jr. might not be so accommodating.

“As much as you hate running through people, running over people, winning races is pretty damn important in the sport, really defines your career, defines the success the team’s having, can make a big difference for a team,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Sometimes you got to do everything it takes.”

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon said he wouldn’t wreck a fellow driver by running straight into the back of him.

“That’s not racing,” Gordon said, “but if you’re racing the guy, you guys make contact, then that’s where you can start to draw the line or kind of understand the situation.”

Roughing up someone is acceptable, but no one forgets when it occurs.

“You have to race as hard as you can, make the best choices you can, be smart about it,” Gordon said. “If you decide to make the big, aggressive move that ticks somebody off, do it and be ready for the consequences because you still got 10 weeks ahead of you. This is not the last race of the year.”

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 7 2013
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