Boys being boys, at 200 mph

ATLANTA – Well, the boys had at it. Happy?

A visibly shaken Brad Keselowksi walked away from the accident that sent him flying through the air.

In January, NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton loosened the reins on drivers with an instant-classic phrase: “Boys, have at it.” On Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards sent Brad Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge flipping into the air – and with it, all of NASCAR’s hopes for the first controversy-free week of the young season.

Keselowski’s flight was a terrifying inversion of the wreck on the final lap of the spring race at Talladega a year ago, the infamous wreck in which Keselowski sent Edwards pinwheeling into the fence at almost the exact same position on the track. In and of itself, going airborne was enough of a problem – this isn’t the kind of wreck that you expect to see at a track like Atlanta. But when you factor in the potential motivations and storylines behind this wreck, this suddenly goes from highlight video to headache for NASCAR.

The wreck completely changed the complexion of the race; Juan Pablo Montoya had been slicing fractions of a second off Kurt Busch’s lead over the final few laps, and was on pace to catch him in the final lap. But with NASCAR’s new green-white-checker rules that are designed to allow races to finish under a green flag, Busch had to hold off Montoya two more times before finally taking the checkers for his second straight win at the Kobalt Tools 500.

But even as Busch was keeping the field at bay, NASCAR was summoning Edwards to its hauler, the equivalent of a trip to the principal’s office – if the principal held your career in his hands, that is.

“We wanted to talk to Carl and get his opinion on things,” Pemberton said after the race. “It’s always a concern when you see retaliation.”

Edwards and Keselowski have a history; in addition to that Talladega wreck, Keselowski got into Edwards during a Nationwide race at Memphis last October, costing Edwards a lead and, quite possibly, a shot at the Nationwide title eventually won by Kyle Busch. And earlier in Sunday race, Keselowski was involved in a wreck that sent Edwards to the garage for more than 100 laps.

Clearly, their past was on Edwards’ mind.

“Brad knows the deal between him and I,” Edwards said, never denying that the wreck was intentional. “The scary part is that his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected. … [P]eople gotta have respect for one another, and I have a lot of respect for people’s safety. I wish that wouldn’t have gone like it did, but I’m glad he’s okay.

“We’ll go on and race some more, and maybe him and I won’t have any more incidents together. That will be the best thing.”

Read between the lines there – “the deal,” “respect,” and “incidents” are all driver code for “payback.”

Still, whatever debt Keselowski owed Edwards, it’s now more than square. Keselowski was running in the top 10, putting together one of his best races of the season. Edwards was completely out of the race, a nonfactor simply logging laps.

Carl Edwards' retaliation sent Brad Keselowski airborne at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And make no mistake, this was a hell of a wreck. Keselowski’s car looked like an “after” shot in one of those videos they show at high schools to scare teen drivers. And although he responded almost immediately on the radio, Keselowski sounded dazed.

“Did I fly?” he wondered, as his crew chief Jay Guy tried to coax more lucid information out of him.

A half hour later on TV, Keselowski still appeared shaken, shocked at the severity of the wreck (and, perhaps, finally realizing that he’s playing for keeps now).

“To come back and intentionally wreck someone, that’s not cool,” he said. “It could have killed somebody in the grandstands. I know that’s a little ironic that it’s got me saying that, but at least I didn’t do it intentionally when it happened. It will be interesting to see how NASCAR reacts to it. They have the ball.”

Pemberton did not disclose any details of the meeting with Edwards, other than to say they had an “understanding” and that there was “nothing further to be done [Sunday] about it.” NASCAR officials will meet early this week and determine what, if any, punishment will be meted out.

Here’s where the trickiness comes in for NASCAR. Keselowski has made few friends in the garage, and there are doubtless many who feel that he got a healthy serving of his own race-devastating medicine. And NASCAR has said it wants the drivers to police themselves, as Pemberton made clear with his “have at it, boys” comment. On the other hand, if NASCAR doesn’t penalize Edwards, at least to some degree, that could, in theory, open the door to even more severe acts of retaliation.

Yes, things got a bit out of control Sunday. But should NASCAR clamp down to try to prevent future problems, or have faith in its safety systems and the judgment of its drivers? No matter which option NASCAR chooses, fans will howl – it’s what they do. But after a season that’s already seen the ugly lows of a pothole, empty California seats and malfunctioning caution lights, at least this week’s drama took place at full speed. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

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Updated Sunday, Mar 7, 2010