Tempers run hotter than ever in NASCAR

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Ryan McGee

Among the truckload of criticisms long aimed at NASCAR over the years, the most popular is a cry from the grandstands of stick-and-ball sports.

"Man, that's as much of a sport as wrasslin'!" Even after decades of hearing it over and over, that simple sentence still stings NASCAR officials and competitors alike. Yes, the athletes wear colorful uniforms. Yes, a lot of their fans like to wear the ugliest t-shirts in sports and have been known to drink a beer or two. But no, the outcome isn't fixed. No, the France family has no say in what happens between the yellow lines. And no, no one ever does a backflip off of a turnbuckle. However, this season the sport of Junior, Smoke, and the Rainbow Warrior has developed one undeniably common trait with the realm of Hulk, The Rock, and the Ultimate Warrior. Tempers are running hotter than a brake rotor at Martinsville. "It seems like each season there is more tension earlier in the spring than the year before," says mild-mannered giant Elliott Sadler, now in his ninth season. "Why? Pressure. Pressure from a lot of different places all at once. You get all that built up inside and then something happens to trigger it ... and boom! You got guys in each others' faces." With each passing Nextel Cup season, more and more attention is being heaped onto the sport. As attention grows, so does the media coverage, providing for more criticism than drivers have endured in the past and creating more outlets in which those same drivers can call each other out. As the sport's popularity grows, so does the amount of money heaped on teams and drivers, cash paid by Fortune 500 CEOs who expect to win each and every race. And with the introduction of The Chase's postseason format, the days of slow ramp-ups into a solid season are gone. Teams must run up front immediately or be left out in the cold come autumn. "You can feel it just walking through the garage in Daytona at the start of the season," observes Jeff Burton, a 14-year vet. "There were always short fuses at Daytona because it is the biggest race of the season, but there also used to be a bit of an emotional drop-off the next few weeks as teams tried to pace themselves. Not anymore. With only 26 races before The Chase eliminates two-thirds of the garage, there isn't time." This year's spiking temperatures started rising before the season had even officially started, when defending champion Tony Stewart called out his fellow competitors for rough driving in preseason exhibition and qualifying events. Then, in the 500 itself, Stewart and Kyle Busch were penalized for over-aggressive driving and proceeded to call each other names after the checkered flag. Three weeks later Kyle's older brother Kurt found himself in a feud with Kevin Harvick over a run-in at Atlanta, prompting Harvick to declare at Bristol that he was going to "whip his ass". But Harvick didn't get the chance at Thunder Valley because Busch was too busy ticking off former teammate Matt Kenseth by spinning him. Kenseth called the hit "a cheap shot," but wasn't able to say so until after he had received a two-handed shove from Jeff Gordon for some paint rubbing on the final lap.

"You try to do this right," the four-time champ said after his televised power shove. "And you get run over. I have been trying to do this right, but I am going to have to be more aggressive from now on." April brought a Kurt Busch-Greg Biffle wreck at Texas, which resulted in the highest profile shouting match of the season thus far — a pit box showdown between Biffle's girlfriend and Busch's fiancee. The incident lasted about 10 seconds, but was caught live on FOX and during the off weekend of Easter, aired on every sportscast from Bakersfield to Bangladesh. Oh wait ... did we mention Mark Martin arguing with rookie Denny Hamlin, Busch Series regulars bitching about part-time "Buschwackers" winning all the races, or everyone at Darlington wanting to knock Ken Schrader's block off? Poor anger management is certainly nothing new to NASCAR. In the 1940s and '50s, finishing the day with a bunkhouse stampede in the garage was as customary as waving the checkered flag. Richard Petty's mother once beat the hell out of a 6-3 giant named Tiny Lund during with her purse. "The purse didn't hurt," Lund said, "But the pistol inside the purse did." Petty may be known as "The King", but 1970 champion Bobby Isaac was known as "The King of Street Fighters". And the 1979 Daytona 500, long considered the moment of NASCAR's arrival as a major league sport, was a day forever punctuated by "The Fight," a three-man scuffle between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers live on CBS Sports. But never have we seen the kind of quickly escalating hostilities as we do these days. Of course, we've also never seen the median age in the garage plummet as it has over the last five seasons. If you ask the veterans of the garage, those two facts are more directly connected than Barry and BALCO. "With youth there is fearlessness and sometimes stupidity," explains Mark Martin, known over his 24 years as one of the most level-headed mentors in the sport. "There was a time when you didn't get into a fast car until you were in your 30s, but these guys are in top rides in their teens. I have no problem with that, but like any teenager they are going to be disrespectful and have to be reminded of their privileges. If not, you take those away or just remind them who the adult is." "There is a racing etiquette," says Tony Stewart, the man who ushered in the Young Gun era with his arrival in 1999. "There's not as many people exercising it. I think the veterans and the guys that are used to winning a lot of races are still using that. But there are a lot of young drivers in NASCAR now that don't have that respect for the series and for the veterans in the series. There's a difference in how we race in Cup vs. how those guys race when they come through the Busch and Truck series. I think those guys need to learn how we race. For them to think they're going to come in and change how we race is ludicrous." Which brings us to the Nextel All-Star Challenge this Saturday night at the Lowe's Motor Speedway north of Charlotte, a non-points paying exhibition race that will hand a check for more than $1 million to the winner. It is an event that has become more famous for its post-race altercations than its in-race moments. A very abbreviated sampler:

  • 1987 — Dale Earnhardt's "Pass in the Grass" results in a post-race fender bang and tongue-lashing from Bill Elliott.
  • 1989 — Rusty Wallace spins Darrell Waltrip to win and the two crews break out into a 40-man melee at the entrance to Victory Lane.
  • 1998 — Even-tempered vets Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte openly question Kenny Irwin's manhood after the rookie causes a big wreck at the start of the second segment.
  • 2005 — Normally mild-mannered Joe Nemechek and never mild-mannered Kevin Harvick get into a shouting match in front of 160,000 screaming fans over a wreck that neither one of them actually caused.

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    This season's field will include 20 drivers, ranging from 49-year-old Dale Jarrett to just-turned 21-year-old Kyle Busch. Each and every racer already involved in some sort of earlier season altercation is on the roster, from Stewart to Harvick to Kenseth to Gordon. The question is, will that springtime emotional baggage be checked at the gate, or will be opened up all over the backstretch wall? "It is a funny thing about being pissed at someone," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a tight-lipped smirk. "You tell yourself that you're over it and that you're getting on with your life. But then you see the guy out there on the track and he does some little thing to make you remember why you were pissed at him in the first place. That's when it is damn hard to hold back." So far in 2006, it's been harder than ever before.

    Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address:
  • Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart

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