The last few races of the season are a championship battle, yes, but for drivers out of the hunt for the Sprint Cup, they're the equivalent of your final few days of school: you've got scores to settle before the big break. And Brian Vickers, who's become something of a NASCAR whipping boy after his wreck-happy day at Martinsville and the punishment Matt Kenseth delivered there, looked for all the world like he decided to keep the party going on Sunday at Phoenix.
Late in the race, with Kenseth neither a Cup contender nor a factor in the race, Vickers plowed straight into Kenseth's rear bumper, sending him straight to pit road for lengthy repairs. Perhaps this was Kenseth's fault for slowing up, but at Martinsville, Vickers used up every bit of sympathy he might have gotten from impartial observers.
Vickers apparently claimed over the radio that Kenseth had slowed up on the straightaway, and Kenseth's own comments backed that up: "I was out of brakes, and I was up on everybody," he said. "I saw [Vickers] coming and I lifted [off the throttle] at least 10 car lengths before where I would normally lift. And he drove in there at 165 miles per hour and cleaned us out."
Vickers did not make himself available for comment after the race, which is probably not the best thing to do if you're trying to maintain any semblance of innocence.
Naturally, in the wake of this kind of apparently (because there's at least the possibility that this was an accident) premeditated retaliation, thoughts turned instantly to Kyle Busch and the penalty levied on him for deliberately slamming into Ron Hornaday at Texas.
"If NASCAR is going to start parking people for being mad 25 seconds after you wreck and wrecking somebody then you would park somebody for [what Vickers did]," Kenseth said. "You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track, he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out, and they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated; it just surprises me that they didn't do anything. I am disappointed, but I expected it."
NASCAR competition director John Darby had another take: "Had we felt that it was more than a racing incident, we would have reacted," he said, "racing incident" being code for "not enough evidence one way or the other." Fans and Kenseth are, of course, free to disagree with that interpretation of the event.
Regardless, Kenseth noted that this current incarnation of "boys, have at it" isn't quite working: "We aren't racing street stocks at a quarter-mile track," he said. "They need to figure out how to get the drivers to settle their differences in a different way ... instead of using your car as a battering ram somewhere this fast."
And while Kenseth's fans may have screamed for blood, that wasn't happening. "I don't stoop to that level," he said. "When we had our problem at Martinsville, it was heat of the moment and he hit me eight or nine times and [I hit him] once. Hindsight, I should have let him go and left him alone, because you realize who he is and what he is and all that ... I would never sit down there and wait for somebody and take a cheap shot like that. You can hurt someone like that, and that isn't sportsmanlike and that isn't something I would do."
Of note: Vickers remains unsigned for 2012. Odds are he won't be taking a seat at Roush-Fenway alongside Kenseth anytime soon.