When drivers lose their temper, NASCAR is there to help them find it
By Darrell WaltripFoxSports
You know folks, I’ll never forget back in the day when I got into a little scuffle with Dale Earnhardt at Richmond or Martinsville — we had some heated words and made idle threats against each other.
Well, Bill France Jr. got in the middle of it. He turned to me and asked, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t normally act this way. What’s the problem?” I told him, “Bill, I just lost my temper.” He put his arm around my neck and told me, “Well DW, I’m here to help you find it.”
That’s what NASCAR does. They don’t like to step in or get in the middle of driver disagreements — that’s part of the sport and they know that; it’s the passion we all have. When something happens on the track and we get angry with each other and knock each other around a little bit — that’s what drivers have always done. NASCAR understands that.
So when they get involved, you know you’ve done something pretty serious.
There were a few times I got called into the NASCAR hauler and read the riot act — the lecture usually went like this, “You know, DW, you need this sport a whole lot more than we need you.” They have subtle ways to get your attention and subtle ways of getting their message across. Although subtle may not be the right word, it was basically: “Here’s the message, you better receive it.”
I think that’s what happened Sunday in Phoenix. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer have a history, we all know that. Remember Martinsville? Bowyer banzai-ed down into the corner on the restart and wrecked Gordon and Jimmie Johnson when they thought one of the two of the Hendrick teammates was going to win — that really upset Gordon, and I don’t think he’s gotten over it.
Bowyer and Gordon have had a couple of bumps and grinds here and there. But Sunday definitely tipped the scales and sent ol’ four-time over the edge. Gordon is a guy who complains a lot — he’ll tell you in a heartbeat that he tends to whine a little bit and he’s talked in the past about guys racing him too hard.
That’s just Jeff Gordon, we all know that. But he doesn’t retaliate against people. I’ve never seen him consciously go and say, “I’m going to wreck that guy.” I’ve heard him make idle threats about what he’s going to do — like when he and Jeff Burton had a shoving match at Texas Motor Speedway a couple of years ago or at Bristol where he’s had run-ins with a couple of people. But I’ve never seen Jeff go out and try to wreck somebody intentionally . . . until Sunday.
He knows, I know, and the whole world knows what he did — he waited for Bowyer and then he put him straight into the wall.
The problem I had was that it led to two race cars getting torn up — and it involved two other guys that had nothing to do with it in Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. You just hate to see that.
Now I’ve been asked a few times, “DW, what happened to ‘Boys have at it’?” I’ve said it, said it and said it — there are limits to “Boys have at it.” It’s not a free-for-all. You can’t just go out there and wreck people then walk away and laugh about it. NASCAR has to have lines that you can't cross. They’ve been liberal about letting guys settle disputes amongst themselves — and that’s what I’ve advocated to Robin Pemberton and John Darby — because the drivers will work it out.
NASCAR does not need to be looking over its shoulders all the time. But like all of us, we still have to know what the limits are and how far we can go. Then when we go too far, somebody has to reel us back in.
That’s what happened Sunday — Gordon went too far and NASCAR reeled him back in, fining him $100,000, docking him 25 points and putting him on probation. He didn’t have a chance to win the championship, but he certainly had a chance to finish in the top 5 in points — but this penalty pretty much eliminates that.
NASCAR had no choice. They can’t let drivers be renegades on the racetrack by using their race cars to retaliate against each other. That gets out of control and is dangerous and it usually finds a way to sweep other cars up into it.
I’m surprised they didn’t park Gordon. If it wasn’t the last race of the season, I’m pretty sure NASCAR may have decided to park Gordon for a week or two. But since it's the end of the year this coming weekend, I think the fine and the points sends a strong message.
I’ve been to some of those meetings with NASCAR where they say, “We’re putting you on probation, but that doesn’t mean you’re not in trouble.” Anytime somebody on probation does something stupid or that we deem unnecessarily reckless, or the next time they make a bad decision on a racetrack, that probation will be staring them right in the face. It’s not a slap on the wrist. NASCAR really clamps down on how they police and monitor probation.
It was a free-for-all in the pits after the on-track accident — but I have to clear something up I’ve seen reported incorrectly. Jeff Gordon was never attacked by anyone. If you watch the video, the No. 24 crew does a pretty good job of protecting him. They shoved him up against a toolbox and three of his team members protected him from the melee that broke loose. So nobody attacked Gordon.
That melee is the reason why No. 15 crew chief Brian Pattie also received a penalty. The crew chief is responsible for his team — no matter what happens. His team left the pit box and went into the garage to start the big scuffle.
Brad Keselowski’s penalty is interesting. NASCAR fined him $25k — and I know a lot of people were hoping they’d also take points away so the season-finale this weekend would be a little closer, but they didn’t. All joking aside, NASCAR says they fined Keselowski because he had a cell phone in his car. Now we all remember back at the Daytona 500 when he went from about 10,000 to more than 200,000 followers on Twitter in one night by tweeting pictures of the fire after Juan Pablo Montoya hit the jet dryer. Everyone thought that was pretty cool, and suddenly we had more drivers tweeting and taking pictures from their car until finally one of the smarter engineers said, “Hey, you can use a cell phone as an electronic device that can trigger traction control or a number of other things." So NASCAR stepped in. Now, I never saw a bulletin nor did I hear any of the drivers tell me they couldn’t have a phone in the car — but apparently they did. And we all saw on Sunday during the late red flag when Keselowski pulled out his phone and was on it during the delay. So that’s why he got fined.
Now having said all that, I’m not so sure it was for the cell phone. When you see the rant Brad went on after the race, and the language he used, I think that was a factor in his fine as well.
No phone in the car, that’s understandable. I said when it happened the first time that it could get out of control and that NASCAR would have to stop it – and apparently they did. Keselowski just ignored it, which led to the fine. But I’ll say again, it may have been for some bad language during the press conference – language I don’t think he would use on Twitter.
The other big news of the weekend was Kevin Harvick — and what a surprise, it was reported by ESPN that he has signed a deal with Stewart-Haas Racing to begin in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Here’s the problem, folks. Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing for 12 years. Like all drivers, Harvick has a prime time in his career, and you can’t spend all your good years in an organization where you are giving it all you have only to spin your wheels and not go anywhere. I think that’s what Harvick is faced with. RCR has been up and down ever since he’s been there and I don’t think Harvick can take another year of changing crew chiefs, changing directions, changing things around him all the time.
I think he really wanted to go somewhere where he has a little more stability — a lot like Kasey Kahne did when he signed with Hendrick Motorsports.
I don’t blame Harvick. I think he needs a breath of fresh air. He’s a great driver capable of winning races and a championship. So I think it’s time for him to make a change, and apparently he agrees with me.
And finally — no caution at the end of the race!
I’m not opposed to NASCAR not throwing the yellow flag on the final lap of the Phoenix Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday. I don’t like seeing guys race through oil like they had to, but I’m a big believer that when the white flag waves you race back to the checkered flag.
I don’t like races decided by freezing the field or a line in the track when the caution comes out. I’ve made this argument before, and I’m sticking with it.
Now there was oil on the track and NASCAR should’ve been able to see that — they could’ve turned the caution lights on to give the guys a warning. But when the white flag comes out, I’m a big believer in racing back to the finish line.
That’s the way we did it for years. One of the problems we’ve had with this sport is taking all the drama out of it. One of the things that’s really dramatic, like we saw Sunday, is coming back to that line to see who’s going to win the race.
Sometimes it doesn’t turn out so pretty, but it’s the way it ought to be.