FORT WORTH, Texas – If one of the four drivers in contention for the Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead in two weeks feels he's wronged during the race, what's going to happen afterwards? After two altercations in the last four weeks, there now seems a decent chance there will be fireworks at Homestead.
And it's stupid.
After Brad Keselowski was tackled by Matt Kenseth at Charlotte and both drivers' teams ended up in a scrum between two haulers, Keselowski was the target of Jeff Gordon's ire on pit road Sunday at Texas.
But what was simply a spark without anything to ignite got gasoline in the way of a push from Kevin Harvick to the back of Keselowski and a full-on fracas ensued, leaving both Gordon and Keselowski with visible reminders of a completely avoidable melee on their faces.
There's a clear line between aggressive and dirty racing. What Keselowski did to Kenseth on pit road in ramming his car (and what he said Kenseth did to him during a caution flag earlier in the race) certainly can't be classified as aggressive. What happened Sunday can't be classified as dirty.
Gordon's frustration was understandable, but his reaction might have been influenced by Keselowski's reputation, which was recently excoriated by Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
The contact between Gordon and Keselowski came on a late race restart. As Keselowski went to move between Gordon, who was on the outside of the front row, and Johnson, who was the race leader on the inside, as the field accelerated into turn one on lap 336, there was clearly an opening for his car. But as Keselowski moved into the opening, Gordon came down towards Johnson's car what looked like an attempt to side draft through the corners.
If the term "rubbin' is racin'" is true, Keselowski's move was a perfect example of it. Because of NASCAR new points format instituted in January, Chase drivers move on automatically to the next round with a win. So if Keselowski or Gordon won the race, he would be guaranteed a shot to race for the title in two weeks. It's why both drivers had to be aggressive … on the track. Keselowski finished 31st last week at Martinsville, and entered Texas thinking his best shot to move on in the Chase was not via points, but by winning a race.
"There was a gap. It closed up. By the time it closed up, I was committed and I stayed in it," Keselowski said. "That almost won me the race. It hurt somebody else's day. That's a shame. But the reality is there was a gap."
"You know, I'm not Dale Earnhardt or Senna. I read how they raced, how great they were for this sport. They would sit here and tell you they would go for that same gap. I'm not them, but I'm inspired by that, and I'm going to race that way."
Gordon's frustration with the move was understandable. His chances for advancing to Homestead were dimmed severely. But his reaction might have been influenced not only by the Chase format that resets points four times and eliminates 12 drivers en route to the championship, but by the recent excoriations of Keselowski's reputation.
"It's emotion that is a part of this Chase and this format as well as towards people that make dumb decisions," Gordon said. "He has been making a lot of them lately. That is why people have been running after him and chasing him down. It's why his team has got to defend him over there because of what he does on the race track."
The dumbest decision was made by Harvick, however. He clearly wanted something to happen and pushed Keselowski, inciting the melee.
"I didn't get in the middle of anything," Harvick said. "I just turned him around and told him to go fight his own fight."
But it wasn't a fight. Given the number of crew members surrounding Gordon and Keselowski, Gordon was unable to get to Keselowski, and Keselowski clearly wasn't going to get involved in an altercation. Once Harvick pushed him, he was enveloped and inexplicably punched by a member of Kasey Kahne's team as crew members from multiple teams converged on the scene.
"I came here to race, not fight. If I wanted to be a fighter, I would have joined the UFC or have a management team like he does," Keselowski said. (Harvick's company manages multiple UFC fighters) "I came here to race, 100 percent. That's what I did today."
"The only thing I wouldn't be proud of is if I went and started fights or jumped in fights. I wouldn't be proud of that. I came here to race 100 percent. The people that want to see fights are not true race fans. They need to watch UFC … because that's not true racing. I know in my heart that I raced 100 percent and did what should be done to be a professional race car driver."
NASCAR shouldn't be proud of the incident either. However, it was likely reveling in spikes in the graph below.
— Kyle Sheldon (@kylesheldon) November 3, 2014
Whether you like him or not, Keselowski's point about race fans and fighting has some truth to it. As the post-race incident from Charlotte made morning news shows on Monday, viewership for the next race, an elimination race at Talladega, the most entertaining track in the sport, was down 600,000 viewers from the year prior.
Instead of the storyline being a dramatic points race manufactured by its new points format or Jimmie Johnson's win, the dominant discussion of the week will be what happened on pit road, and why drivers and crews feel the need to settle things with grabbing and shoving and wailing.
And that's unfair to the racing. While the first 85 percent of the race was forgettable, the final laps at Texas were thrilling and unpredictable – two of the things we want when we watch sports. Instead, those moments are lost in something that was predictable and incredibly avoidable.
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