Message sent with Charlotte penalties, but what was it exactly?
NASCAR delivered a message this week in issuing relatively light penalties to Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart, two of the drivers involved in the post-race fracas at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The message itself seems to be up for interpretation, however.
All things considered, the sanctions levied against Keselowski and Stewart — fines of $50,000 and $25,000, respectively — were minor when compared with other penalties the sanctioning body has handed down in recent years.
Two other drivers who played a role in the Charlotte mayhem — teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — were not penalized at all.
So what are drivers to make of NASCAR’s reaction?
One could argue that Kenseth, who started a post-race shoving match with Keselowski but apparently stopped short of throwing a punch, was more deserving of a penalty than anyone.
In issuing the penalties, however, NASCAR appeared to take more exception to what happened inside of the cars than outside of them.
By penalizing Keselowski and Stewart — and not penalizing Kenseth and Hamlin — it seems the sanctioning body wanted to tell drivers they are OK to settle their differences man-to-man but not machine-to-machine.
Keselowski and Stewart drove into one another on pit road immediately after the race had ended. Hamlin tailgated Keselowski through the garage but never actually ran into anyone after the checkered flag had waved.
Ditto for Kenseth, who made contact with Keselowski before the race ended but then waited until he was out of his car to take it a step further.
That no driver was docked points, of course, calls into question just how egregious NASCAR deemed any of the post-race antics. Perhaps drivers can now spar as much as they wish in the garage as long as a punch isn’t thrown, as happened at Richmond in April when Marcos Ambrose gave Casey Mears a black eye.
In that instance, NASCAR fined Ambrose $25,000 and fined Mears $15,000, and both drivers were placed on probation. Neither was docked points — a punishment the sanctioning body typically reserves for violations on a race car but not a driver’s actions inside or outside of it.
"At first, I was a little bit surprised that Matt Kenseth wasn’t fined, but it’s always been kind of a closed-fist type deal," Ryan Newman, speaking outside of his team hauler at Talladega Superspeedway, told FOXSports.com. "I didn’t see any fists thrown. I don’t know that everybody saw everything. In the end, there weren’t any fists thrown, which is different than what we had at Richmond. Obviously the level of intensity is high. There are some frustrations. After watching the replay, if I was Matt, I would have been frustrated, too. In the end, NASCAR made a call. Using your car as a weapon or a tool for destruction is not acceptable before the race or during the race or after the race.
"I guess maybe the biggest question in the end will be, eventually, at what point is money not the object?"
In other words, Newman isn’t sure whether a fine by itself is enough to deter behavior that NASCAR deems unacceptable.
If there’s one area in which Newman and most everyone seems to agree, it’s that NASCAR frowns upon anyone who drives in a fashion it considers dangerous on pit road or in the garage once the race has ended.
In the case of Keselowski at Charlotte, the Team Penske driver ran into the cars of both Kenseth and Stewart on pit road, and then drove hurriedly through the garage, smoking his tires, with Hamlin following closely behind.
"The importance needs to really shift toward safety in the garage area and safety on pit road," said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who wasn’t involved in the post-race craziness. "Those are two environments where there should be no exceptions. NASCAR’s ruling shows they are serious about that, and hopefully that keeps those areas safe."
Rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of veteran team owner Richard Childress, doesn’t condone drivers using their race cars to show displeasure, but has no problem with drivers getting in each other’s faces and even getting physical on occasion.
"Kenseth, I didn’t feel like he did anything wrong, and just expressed his feelings of how he felt about the situation," Dillon told FOXSports.com. "He didn’t harm anyone, he might have scared somebody, but that’s about it. … Sometimes it’s warranted when you feel like things aren’t going your way and there’s only a few ways to handle it and you don’t want to tear up anymore equipment because this stuff’s really expensive. Coming from a car owner, I know how much these cars cost, so there’s certain ways you’ve got to handle things, and sometimes it comes down to that."
Hamlin agreed with NASCAR’s decision not to penalize Kenseth, and didn’t think Keselowski’s actions warranted a stiffer penalty.
"You hate to put a points penalty — any monetary fine is a big deal," Hamlin said. "Even though people don’t think it is, it still comes out of his pocket. That’s a big deal, and not only that, but also I’m sure there was discussions in the (NASCAR) hauler about this is our safe zone, safe area that there are fans and potential crew members around. … It’s kind of a zero tolerance policy inside that garage and on pit road.
"The message as far as Matt is concerned, what else short of really just blindsiding and tackling him (Keselowski), how else are you going to get to him? There’s so many crew guys. They won’t let you talk to him. He kind of did what he had to do, and really you really can’t see any punches or anything so, yeah, as far as I’m concerned they were holding hands."
Kenseth, for his part, didn’t anticipate being penalized for putting Keselowski in a headlock in between the team haulers.
"First of all, it was not a planned action and I didn’t go in there with fists flying or anything else like that," Kenseth said. "I just really wanted to get to him, I guess. I’m not sure what I wanted to do when I got there, but I wasn’t really expecting (a penalty). It was obvious I didn’t really have a plan, right?"
While NASCAR is clearly taking a more tolerant stance toward pushing and shoving than post-race bumper cars, Newman believes the sanctioning body has moved away from the "Boys, have it" era introduced before the 2010 season to let drivers settle their differences with little to no risk of penalty.
"Without a doubt, they’ve tightened it up as far as pushing and punching," Newman said. "In ‘Boys, have at it’ in what we used to see with guys spinning each other out after the checkered flag and things like that, that’s something you really can’t do anymore without some sort of penalty."
So why is "Boys, have at it," no longer the rule of the road?
"I think they had to change it at some point," Newman said of NASCAR. "They got what they wanted to out of it. Marketing slogans only last so long in business."
VIDEO: Matt Kenseth jumps Brad Keselowski at Charlotte