Opinion: Only NASCAR can stop boys who are out of control
When NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France introduced the championship format the sanctioning body first adopted in 2014, he said he hoped it would produce "Game 7 moments."
When the drivers heard about it, they knew it would produce utter and complete chaos.
There was plenty of both Sunday at tiny Martinsville Speedway, the oldest and shortest track in the sport.
First, the good.
In his final season, Jeff Gordon broke a 39-race winless streak by winning the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, his ninth race victory at the fabled Virginia short track. It was Gordon’s 93rd career victory, a total eclipsed only by Richard Petty’s 200 victories and the 105 won by David Pearson.
More importantly, it means that Gordon will go to Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks guaranteed to be one of the four drivers who will race for the title of 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. No matter what happens at Texas Motor Speedway next week, or Phoenix International Raceway the week after, Gordon will get to race for a championship.
That’s huge for Gordon and that’s huge for the sport.
As Gordon celebrated in the darkness of Victory Lane, literally thousands of fans shouted their approval and roared with delight at Gordon’s triumph. Quite a change from a few years ago, when he won at Talladega and got showered with beer cans from angry fans.
"To be in the moment, right now, and be experiencing this, to know what was on the line here today and to achieve this with this race team, is unbelievable," said Gordon. "It is absolutely unbelievable. And I don’t think I can quite really measure on a scale what this means. This means so much to me."
For a driver who has showed such class in victory and defeat, and a man who has worked tirelessly to help fight childhood cancer and raise money for a variety of charitable causes, it was a stirring moment of triumph and joy.
And that’s good, because what happened prior to Gordon’s victory was a huge black-eye on the sport.
A quick recap: Matt Kenseth, who had gotten wrecked in the previous two Chase races, got roughed up again on a restart by Brad Keselowski, the teammate of Joey Logano at Team Penske. It was Logano who turned Kenseth around in Kansas two weeks ago, and brake-checked him on pit road at Talladega last week.
So on Lap 454 of Sunday’s 500, Kenseth, obviously and with malice aforethought, drilled Logano into the wall deliberately, putting him into a deep points hole. There was nothing subtle about it. Kenseth kept his foot into the accelerator and never lifted until the crash.
And you know what? NASCAR has no one to blame for this but NASCAR.
Logano was not penalized for wrecking Kenseth at Kansas. In fact, NASCAR’s leader Brian France publicly praised the move, saying it was smart racing.
Last week at Talladega, Kevin Harvick moved up the track on the final restart, hitting Trevor Bayne and triggering a big pile-up. Harvick as much as admitted that his move was deliberate.
"They can look at 100 different ways, but I can’t quit, you know?" Harvick said Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "Obviously, we were in a unique position with the caution still out and the way that things all shook out. You can’t just roll over and be done with it and say, ‘Well, we tried our best.’ Because you didn’t. I quit once in my life and I’ll never quit again."
I don’t believe Harvick went after Bayne and deliberately tried to crash him, but I absolutely believe he did everything in his power to cause a caution to save his Chase chances. And by doing so, he altered the finish of the race and who made it in the Chase and who didn’t.
And NASCAR did nothing. In fact, NASCAR said it saw nothing wrong with it.
So now we have a situation where a past champion — Kenseth — obviously wrecked the race leader at Martinsville — Logano — and drilled him into the wall. As noted, this came after Kenseth had been wrecked and roughed up by both Team Penske drivers in prior incidents and races.
The absence of any NASCAR action in the face of increasing aggression on the track means it was inevitable that something like this was going to happen.
It’s like being a kid at school and getting picked on by a bully. If the teacher won’t stop it, the bullying gets worse, until something really bad happens. It continually escalates until either the bully crosses the line or the victim fights back.
The drama and the tension of the Chase are wonderful to watch most of the time. But there has to be a limit, especially when using a 3,250-pound race car as a weapon. This has to stop and it has to stop now.
This isn’t "boys, have at it."
This is "boys are out of control."
And only NASCAR can fix it.
Let’s hope it does.