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Flat Spot On: Them Boys Get To Fightin’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 13 2014

The action got hot during – and after – Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Tami Kelly Pope)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

When you race against one of Roger Penske’s teams, you know you’re always in for a fight, almost invariably on the track. But during the Charlotte round of the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, it was Penske’s lead driver who instigated a post-race ruckus.

As a team owner, Penske is well known for his cool and class and now championships in all major divisions thanks to the 2012 Sprint Cup title of Brad Keselowski, the instigator of the re-make of “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.” Rarely has one driver ticked off so many other drivers in the span of one lap. It’s almost enough to revive the handle of “Bad Brad,” except for the fact he tried to retreat to his trailer instead of confronting his adversaries once out of the car.

When the overheated moments between Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were over, the ever-cocky Keselowski was unrepentant and disingenuously stated, “Those other guys can dish it out, but can’t take it.” It was a matter of moments before pundits like Rusty Wallace, a longtime Penske driver and now commentator for ESPN, declared it was a good thing to see some passion in the pits as a prelude to 500 miles at the Talladega Superspeedway.

Wallace, not known for being much of a fisticuffs guy during his driving career, particularly for Penske, is spot on. Baseball can clear the benches, NBA players can come up swinging and the NFL can leverage itself to the top of the heap via unchecked violence. So it’s a welcome sight to see that drivers are laying it all on the line at 190 mph around the 1.5-mile confines of Charlotte, enough to get highly ticked off during the close-fought turf wars that are likely to determine this year’s championship.

It is important that the passion behind the wheel doesn’t become dangerous or injurious and Keselowski’s behavior on the cool down lap left safety in jeopardy. It will be a surprise if some sanction from NASCAR does

Brad Keselowski could be Public Enemy No. 1 at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

not occur for Keselowski, who predictably has the Captain, i.e. Penske, in his corner arguing against anything that would take his driver out of Chase contention.

For those so inclined, it is a chance to poke holes in the leadership mantle of NASCAR, which instigated a new format for the Chase and now has to deal with a former champion getting out of control as a result of the pressure-packed new format. NASCAR officials are, in fact, not likely to reduce the excitement of the new Chase and do anything to take one of Penske’s drivers out of a possible championship bid. Keselowski can only advance to the next round with a victory at Talladega, where he scored his first career victory, a scenario which fans will undoubtedly get a chance to see this Sunday in Alabama.

During the recent dismal days of Tony Stewart’s incarceration by investigation, one of the more enlightened moments came from the comments section during the reportage on the tragic events in upstate New York where a young driver lost his life while in a post-accident fit of anger (and excessive marijuana use it turns out).

“What fans go to see at short tracks are crashes,” wrote this commenter, “and a fight if they’re lucky.”

It’s clear from the outcome in New York and Saturday’s high-speed dust-up the fighting can lead to serious problems if it takes place on the track while cars are still rolling. What this writer laments is that the drivers can no longer confront one another in the pits after a Sprint Cup race without running into NASCAR officials or team members. (Kudos should go to Kenseth for finding Keselowski and putting him in a headlock before an intervention by crews.)

There’s a dirt track near the city of Rome in north Georgia that has a bluff overlooking turns three and four – a great place to tailgate and watch the race with a pair of goggles and some earplugs. In the dust and turmoil of a race with a big purse, there’s a lot of dirty stuff going on between drivers, who sometimes literally break each other’s car. It’s inevitable that you’ll soon be watching fans in the pits that resemble a lynch mob swarming behind the driver who is heading toward the other driver’s hauler.

My earliest short track memories at Beltsville, Md., include the night Bobby Ballentine emerged from his car after a heat race, threw his helmet down on his own front fender (the helmet bounced about 10 feet in the air), then stalked through the pits to find his adversary followed by fans and crew trying to keep up with him.

Quite a few years later, the first race I covered as a journalist, the 1976 Southern 500, included a notable outburst by Bobby Allison, a fan favorite and the driver of the CAM2 Mercury owned by none other than Roger Penske. Following a spin in the early going while running at the front of the field, Allison was a lap down and

Team Penske will be a hot topic this week. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

first in line for the re-start next to the line of leaders. (This was back in the days when lapped cars took the inside line as opposed to the current double-file re-starts.) Under the yellow, Allison lined up on the inside line a couple cars behind the leader so he could constantly bang the doors of the driver third in the outside line, whom Allison blamed for his plight.

It was ever thus and there are countless stories of legendary fights behind the wheel and off the track in NASCAR history. Ned Jarrett once threw his steering wheel at another driver’s car in anger. Tiny Lund threatened to drown a contrite Curtis Turner in the water at Lakewood. Elizabeth Petty once broke up a fight between Lund and her husband Lee by banging Tiny’s head with a purse that held something hard, reputed to have been a revolver. The list, including the now Brigadoon-like mystic meeting of the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough at Daytona in 1979, goes on.

But not so much anymore, even though fights continue to be commonplace in pro baseball, basketball and football. The reasons are painfully obvious. First, fighting with cars is highly unsafe. Second, fighting in the pits is considered a good way to lose a sponsor.

It’s also painfully obvious that seeing the passion of the drivers one way or another is an important part of motor racing.

But these days well paid drivers want to avoid headlines and imagine they can’t afford NASCAR fines, so they don’t get out of the car and say something like this: “There’s a son-of-a-gun named (insert Jimmie, Jeff, Denny, Kevin, Kyle, Tony, Brad, etc.) who owes me one at Talladega. Tell him not to bother with one of those make-up phone calls until the last lap is over at Talladega.”

When it comes to sponsors and drivers, team owners need to stand up for their drivers and go to bat against NASCAR penalties for speaking out. Instead of cuddling up with sponsors, they need to remind sponsors and NASCAR that passion is part of the sport. Meanwhile, they should stick to their guns with reporters. “If that’s what (insert Jimmie, Jeff, Denny, Kevin, Kyle, Tony, Brad, etc.) said, then I guess that’s the way it’s going to be. See you all at Talladega.”

The sponsors are the biggest whiners of the group, not just because of their multi-million dollar budgets. They write letters, they make phone calls and in short they wheedle about the image of the company – behind the scenes. It’s not much different than the condescending PR guy at Chrysler during the 1960’s who wrote to drivers to instruct them not to wear white socks with their suits to the post-season NASCAR awards banquet.

NASCAR itself deserves the most brickbats on the point of drivers’ self-expression. Imagining themselves as proxies for the all-coveted sponsors, perhaps, NASCAR officials went way overboard by attempting to secretly fine drivers for comments they found out of line. Nothing puts a repressive chill on a community like unannounced sanctions.

At least these days, it’s not a pejorative perception of the South that’s caught up in what a longtime southern race promoter, the late Alf Knight, used to describe as “Them boys get to fightin’.” Keselowski is from Michigan, Kenseth from Wisconsin, Stewart from Indiana and Virginia’s Hamlin is the only one from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

No, fighting of one sort or another is part of racing. This post-race eruption was a reminder that for the current Chase participants every lap is full of turf wars fought from behind the wheel by some strong egos at intimidating speeds. The spirited essence of the sport may have been pickled by high dollar sponsors, but at least it occasionally appears to have been preserved thanks to nights when “Them boys get to fightin’.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 13 2014
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Marvin says:

    Thanks for your article without throwing too much hash in any one direction. One thing I have noticed is many fans were saying “good for Tony, etc”. If these knuckleheads had any brains, they would see the same thing they were ripping Kez for, Tony did! One part anyway, but a big part none the less. I saw the tape, that was pretty explosive in itself. Tony used his car as a weapon of retaliation, does nobody see that? He could have tried another approach, and didn’t. Nascar screams safety, Stewart’s bonehead move certainly qualifies as a eye opener. And to think with all that has happened in his life these past couple of months, that he would even think of doing something so stupid, knowing cameras about etc., speaks more to his mental state than a thousand words can. Imo of course. Let the lack of common sense and emotion take over…flame away..:)