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Returning Favors: There’s The Rub In Racing

Carl Edwards drives the Aflac Ford Fusion on the NASCAR Sprint Car. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)
Carl Edwards drives the Aflac Ford Fusion on the NASCAR Sprint Car. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Let the "boys be boys" was the motto used in January to describe the loosing of rules regarding close quaters racing at tracks like Daytona and Bristol. That motto was put to the test over the last week with the Carl Edwards incident at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Guest Column by Cathy Elliott

For fans of Penske Racing, the March 7 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was, in the words of Charles Dickens, the best of times, and the worst of times.
Kurt Busch was first across the start/finish line to win the race, mere moments after his teammate, Brad Keselowski, went airborne and hit the retaining wall after receiving a "nudge" from Carl Edwards. The tap came in retaliation for contact between the two drivers earlier in the race, which took Edwards out of contention.
Clips of the incident have been replayed so many times that it's starting to resemble the annual A Christmas Story marathon on TNT, complete with schoolyard rivalries, pragmatic authority figures and a protagonist who reached his breaking point in a most dramatic, and nationally-televised, manner.
NASCAR has been riding the crest of a veritable tsunami of media attention since the race. Fingers are being pointed in so many different directions that we’re all basically spinning around in circles at this point trying to figure out where we are.
It hardly seems possible that anyone could be unaware of what happened, but just in case, here’s a brief recap.
At the Talladega race back in the spring of 2009, contact between the two drivers sent Edwards’ car sailing through the air into the catch fence. In Atlanta, the two cars touched again, sending Edwards to the garage and costing him over 150 laps.
When he finally got back in the race, Edwards returned the “favor” by deliberately -- I’m not judging him, Carl openly admitted it -- putting Keselowski into the wall. The result was a weird case of rewind/replay as Brad’s car then went sailing through the air and into the catch fence.
NASCAR put Edwards on probation for the next three races, the two drivers and their car owners, Jack Roush and Roger Penske, will be sitting down with NASCAR officials to discuss and settle the issue, and then I guess we will return to our regularly-scheduled racing.
Except it isn’t quite that simple. For starters, almost nobody you talk to seems satisfied with NASCAR’s decision. Comments run the gamut, from “Edwards should have been parked for at least one race” to “Keselowski had it coming.”
Next is NASCAR’s decision earlier this year to allow more contact between cars on the track, a policy a lot of people are referring to as “Have at it.” That’s all fine and good when you’re jostling shoulders at a concert venue in order to get a better view, but when you’re using a 3,400 pound stock car to move your neighbor a couple inches to the right, things can get dicey.
Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that these are two very different drivers. Edwards is experienced, monumentally talented and amiable by nature, while Keselowski, while also talented, is still a brash rookie trying to make a name for himself. So far, that has often meant deciding where he wants to be on the racetrack and refusing to give up even a fraction of an inch of space.
But when exactly did determination become a bad thing?
So we have controversy, excitement and a rivalry. I’m liking it.
What I do not like so much is the “stock car as a weapon” scenario.
Professional drivers are smart and they can do amazing things with those cars. To watch them strategize and maneuver around one another to improve their positions bit by bit, lap after lap, is one of the most fascinating things about racing. It’s so much fun to watch.
But although many people love them, crashes are not so entertaining. They’re terrifying. Yes, the safety features of a Sprint Cup car are amazing. Week after week we see wrecks -- some mild, others more dramatic like the ones at Atlanta and Talladega -- and watch the drivers simply climb out of the window and walk away.
I’m afraid we’re almost becoming conditioned to think that regardless of the severity of the accident, no one will ever get hurt. Even the drivers seem to feel that way. After the wreck at Atlanta, Keselowski said he wasn’t worried about himself, but about the fans.
Whether NASCAR’s handling of Carl Edwards was right or wrong is not for me to judge. I have my opinion, but there’s one thing I know for sure. A race without Edwards in it is a less interesting race for an awful lot of people.
That old line from the movie Days of Thunder -- “Rubbin’, son, is racin’” has practically become the mantra of the sport. NASCAR’s decision to allow the drivers to mix it up during races was a good call. It did not cause this accident.
Race car drivers are fierce and passionate. They worry and laugh, and they get mad. It would be unnatural if they didn’t. They’re human.
But I hope I speak for most people when I say that when friction occurs, the boys might consider taking a page out of the old Yarborough/Allison book and settling things the old-fashioned way, by finding a nice quiet place in which to slap one another upside the head.
Now, THAT would be fun to watch.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.