NASCAR drivers take probation about as seriously as Congress does a budget. Explanation of the latter goes without saying. As for the former, well, here's what Kyle Busch said when asked how much being off probation for his incident at Darlington with Kevin Harvick will change the way he drives: "Zero."
Harvick showed last weekend at Pocono just how seriously he was taking his NASCAR-imposed probation when he nearly drove Busch right down into the infield. Officials came over the radio to warn both drivers (why Busch I still don't know) that they'd better cut it out or else, and they did, but that didn't stop Harvick from declaring afterward that he wanted to make sure Busch knows "he's got one coming."
Of course, none of these shenanigans fly in the face of NASCAR, and President Mike Helton certainly doesn't feel his authority is being questioned. It's part of his job to keep NASCAR toeing that line between contact sport and recurring soap opera, and for good reason: it's entertaining.
"Anybody that says it isn't fun to watch is probably lying," Matt Kenseth said of the ongoing Busch-Harvick antics. "It is always fun to watch conflicts and feuds and rivalries and different stuff going on that makes news. I hate being involved in it though."
Clearly Harvick doesn't mind conflict, even when it doesn't directly involve him. Last year, when Denny Hamlin questioned Clint Bowyer's explanation for failing inspection in the Chase opener at New Hampshire, Harvick stuck up for his teammate by sideswiping Hamlin during practice at Dover. Harvick's actions came and went without penalty.
Over the years, Harvick's gotten into a shoving match with Juan Pablo Montoya, a full-on scuffle with Carl Edwards, tried choking Greg Biffle, traded paint with Joey Logano and has engaged in a war of words with Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. The penalties for these actions: nada.
During his 10-plus-year career, Harvick has been placed on probation at least seven times, one of those coming when he was already on probation. That one resulted in NASCAR parking him for one Cup race during the 2002 season – the only time he's been suspended for an entire race. (The other probation leaders in the clubhouse are Busch and Tony Stewart with six, Carl Edwards with four.) And this one should sound familiar: Harvick was once put on probation for ramming into Ricky Rudd's car on pit road.
None of this is to paint Harvick as a villain, but rather to show NASCAR's tolerance for bad behavior … for which we're extremely grateful. As if pulling back the curtains is even necessary, friction, fights and ongoing feuds are fantastic for ratings – and website traffic.
The pre-race show for Sunday's Heluva Good! 400 at Michigan International will certainly mention Jeff Gordon's win at Pocono and will likely feature a look at the not-so-happy three-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last trip to victory lane. Somewhere in the mix, though, there will undoubtedly be a montage of Busch-Harvick clips spliced together to replay and – STAY TUNED! – preview what's to come.
"You thought it was funny didn't you?" Bowyer said when asked if he finds the feud amusing. "Well, I did, too. It's entertainment at its best.”
No, it's not always about who crosses the finish line first, and NASCAR will do its best to make sure it stays that way – especially in the Jimmie Johnson era.
And if during Sunday's race, Harvick gets into Busch, and Helton and the boys deem it intentional, they'll come down on him with the wrath of a five-term Congressman promising spending cuts and slap Harvick right back on probation.
That'll teach him.
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