Sunday afternoon’s renewal of hostilities between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano produced a teachable moment for NASCAR, its driver, teams and fans.
In recent years, NASCAR has abdicated some of the responsibility for on-track oversight to the drivers themselves, allowing competitors to assume a higher level of responsibility when it comes to policing their own conduct and settling disputes. In theory, that’s not a bad idea. After all, these are grown men (and women) who ought to be able to control their own emotions and police their actions.
In reality, however, it hasn’t always worked.
A number of on-track feuds – Keselowski vs Edwards and Gordon vs Bowyer, for example -- have managed to sort themselves out without significant involvement by NASCAR, albeit with a few torn-up race cars along the way. Unfortunately, the sanctioning body made another move two years ago, tweaking the postseason Chase format in a way that made “winning at all costs” more appealing than ever.
In the pressure cooker that is the modern-day Chase -- where each victory is rewarded with a veritable pot of gold and every poor performance could be your last -- the long-acknowledged, informal “Driver Code” has fallen more and more by the wayside. NASCAR is asking drivers to assume a higher degree of autonomy at a time when they are less capable than ever of doing so.
By themselves, either of those two moves might have succeeded. But together, they produced a ticking time bomb that was sure to explode, at some point.
Sunday was that point.
While fingers can rightly be pointed at NASCAR, the athletes themselves also bear a portion of the blame. Wiping out a race leader within sight of the checkered flag as Kenseth did Sunday – especially with two weeks of premeditation and while running multiple laps down –– is irresponsible in the extreme. It may be understandable, or even justifiable, based on Logano’s decision to spin Kenseth two weeks earlier in Kansas. But it is still irresponsible, and produced an unfortunate black eye for the sport.
NASCAR cannot expect drivers to harness their emotions and police themselves in moments of extreme duress. And drivers cannot abdicate responsibility for their actions, demanding that the sanctioning body protect them from themselves
Drivers, like the rest of us, generally do what is in their own best interest.
When they’re in need of a caution flag, drivers will swear on a stack of bibles that there is debris in Turn Three, knowing full well that there is none. They will scream of torrential rain on the backstretch at Daytona, despite the nearest rain cloud being hundreds of miles away. We cannot – and should not – expect a professional athlete with millions of dollars, a series championship and perhaps his very career on the line to put sportsmanship, fair play and the overall good of the sport above his own best interest.
Like placing a T-bone steak – media rare – in front of a starving man, then asking him politely not to take a bite, it’s just too much to ask.
While much discussed of late, the “Driver Code” is far from specific, and subject to a wide degree of variation from competitor to competitor. In recent weeks, a rift has emerged between the older, more traditional drivers – for whom on-track conduct is frowned upon -- and NASCAR’s new breed; a group raised on the credo, “You do what you have to do.”
As the stakes rise, drivers buy more and more into the belief that everything is excusable and anything is justifiable, so long as the reward is sufficient. With only a vague, unwritten “code” to guide them – one that exists only in the minds of its subscribers -- is it any wonder that competitors often disagree about what is (and isn’t) acceptable in the final laps of a race?
NASCAR is incapable of writing a rulebook that encompasses every on-track eventuality. Barring that, all the sanctioning body can do is react when someone steps over the line, saying, “Well, you can’t do that.”
That approach will almost certainly produce charges of inconsistency, since no two incidents are alike. But without the ability and prescience to act in advance and outlaw what’s about to happen in the final laps of next week’s race, NASCAR must be reactive, rather than proactive.
What happened Sunday at Martinsville Speedway has damaged our sport. In the aftermath of “Kenseth vs Logano,” one of the most emotional and significant victories in the history of the game -- a victory that could allow Jeff Gordon to retire as a champion – has been relegated to sidebar status, obscured by an event that was half Rock `Em Sock `Em Robots and half Demolition Derby.
That’s wrong, no matter how you slice it. Gordon deserves better, and NASCAR deserves better.