CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The boys, it seems, are still having at it, and NASCAR, to no surprise, still has no defined line on its year-old policy of letting drivers settle their own scores.
That’s the conundrum NASCAR leaders faced Monday as they huddled to review a pair of weekend altercations at Darlington Raceway that raised attention to the ratings-challenged series, but tested the limits of just how far feuds should be permitted to play out.
The first, between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman, happened behind closed doors with only NASCAR’s top officials present to witness a Friday meeting that “did not go as well as we had hoped.” Rumor has it that Newman punched Montoya in the meeting, a claim neither driver would confirm or deny.
But that NASCAR took the unprecedented step to issue a statement — one that promised further scrutiny of the two drivers — was confirmation enough that something bad went down in the tight confines of NASCAR’s at-track office.
It turned out to be just the opening act.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who have a long history of not getting along, then tangled on the track in the closing laps of Saturday night’s race. Only Busch knows if the contact he had with Harvick, which led to Harvick teammate Clint Bowyer’s race-ending crash, was intentional.
Busch claims it wasn’t, just one of those racing incidents he attributed to Harvick’s lack of on-track etiquette, but Harvick had no interest in calmly discussing the incident. So he stalked Busch after the checkered flag, stopping his car on pit road in front of Busch.
Busch maybe could have driven around him, but instead pulled up to Harvick’s bumper. And when Harvick climbed from his car, approached Busch’s window, and as he leaned in to throw a punch, Busch bumped Harvick’s empty car enough to send it spinning into the wall. It cleared a path for Busch to drive away.
Race fans love the drama, and the post-race fireworks far overshadowed the upset of Regan Smith — NASCAR’s equivalent of a No. 16 seed — beating points leader Carl Edwards — obviously, a No. 1 seed — to the finish in one of the most prestigious races of the season.
In fact, the conversation the last two weeks has not been on the racing or the winners. It’s instead been centered on all the other nonsense: the Montoya-Newman scuffle that stretched from Richmond to Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. firing his crew over a botched final pit stop, Kurt Busch’s mid-race meltdown on his radio, and now another Busch vs. Harvick feud.
NASCAR will likely punish Busch, Harvick, Montoya and Newman. But figuring out how to scold the drivers without totally discouraging the behavior is a difficult task.
There’s precedence in nearly every case.
Robby Gordon drew season-long probation in March for socking Kevin Conway in the garage at Las Vegas, but Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton both went unpunished for an on-track shoving match last November at Texas.
When it comes to meetings in the hauler, which NASCAR is infamously tightlipped about, the sanctioning body took no action in 2008 when Tony Stewart allegedly popped Kurt Busch in front of series officials.
Carl Edwards last season was the first driver to test the policy, which was somewhat accidentally coined “Boys, have at it,” by vice president of competition of Robin Pemberton. Edwards drove his damaged race car into the garage at Atlanta last spring, waited for his crew to repair it, then returned to the track to intentionally wreck Brad Keselowski.
The accident send Keselowski’s car sailing into the fence, and NASCAR slapped Edwards with three races of probation.
It’s not clear why NASCAR is so angry at Montoya and Newman, but the statement on the Friday meeting stressed “we’re not completely through with this issue.”
Safety is clearly at the heart of the Busch-Harvick incident, because NASCAR has no leg to stand on for punishing Busch for the on-track contact. The sanctioning body did nothing after last season’s finale, when Harvick not only caused Busch’s fiery wreck, but admitted post-race it was intentional.
“He raced me like a clown all day: three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me. I just had enough,” Harvick brazenly admitted.
But their post-race antics on pit road Saturday night can’t be ignored, and neither is exempt from blame.
Harvick instigated by stopping on pit road and climbing out of his car, but Busch participated by pulling onto Harvick’s bumper and then spinning the car. Thankfully, the crew members running to join the fray had not yet reached the scene, and were thus out of harm’s way when the driverless car smacked the wall.
Kurt Busch was fined $100,000 in 2007 for putting crew members in danger with pit road antics, but that was at a time when NASCAR didn’t understand how much the fans love driver drama.
Now, in trying to cater to that fan desire, NASCAR has opened the flood gates with nothing more than a case-by-case trial and jury system to determine how much is too much. The Montoya-Newman feud has apparently gone too far, even though we may never know just what was the final straw.
The Busch-Harvick thing must be judged solely as a safety hazard, with punishment only bad enough to send a message that pit road is too dangerous a place to carry out vendettas. The last thing NASCAR wants is to discourage the raw emotion that’s got everyone talking.
After all, who won Saturday night?