Wednesday, November 04, 2015

COMMENTARY: As Championship Pressure Rises, Drivers Not Always Capable Of Policing Themselves

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.


  1. u forgot water bottles being thrown on tracks. They shown on camera them doing it for a caution and nothing happens. ive read reporters stating danica hit is less a safety issiue which is BS. Any hit purposely is a safety issue. I watched races from the past from soft hits to hard and both have had harmful outcomes. Reporters calling what Denny talked of unwritten code and gentlemans code in racing a bunch of nonsense and brad mocking it is a slap to past racers in the face. Nascar puts penalties on inspection warnings. Where is the penalty for constant warnings on restarts. Joey has a record going. Penske baited drivers and matt got the aftermath. I would like to see the in car camera on jeffs car when brad hit matt. They always show those but the one needed shown is no where. Reporters are putting a halo on the penske team. I have no problem with matt getting in trouble but make it a rule first not automatic suspension. Now drivers not n the chase will be tiptoeing around in the races. Nascar still opened the door on situations if anyone noticed for chase drivers. Been a fan since early 80s and wish people today could get to experience packed tracks and the feeling of roar of the crowd. Nothing like it. Now u got arm room all over the place. Nascar walls are crumbling bit by bit. What they tried to do in filling seats are now emptying them more n more. JG picked the right time to retire and I agree with him. Time to retire from Nascar. Use to be excited for the race and now its just what the new rule this week or the top 10 in qualifying is pretty much the outcome of the race. My kids would make fun of me cause no one was allowed to call or come over during practice or race and now I just walk away. If penske is the future of racing then I have gotten too old for Nascar. Let the new generation of what there is have it

  2. Anonymous3:46 PM

    In the back of my mind, I keep wondering if Clint Bowyer is still secretly seething about what Gordon did to him. Although he would have to make it look a lot more like a "Racing incident" than many of the others, he could still dole out his revenge on Jeff to ruin Jeff's run at Homestead. Just something to consider.

  3. Anonymous5:59 PM

    Everybody keeps overlooking that Keslowski took Kenseth out of Martinsville when he and Joey were playing games with restarts, don't you think Kensteh had enough of Penske drivers taking him out of 2 races......

  4. Jack Arseneau6:08 PM

    Everybody, including the media types seem quite content on letting Nascar off the hook here. Steve O'Donnell said there is no place in Nascar for this type of incident yet it seemed quite content to allow Edwards to flip Keselowski, Gordon to wreck Boywer, Logano to wreck Kenseth, and Harvick to wreck the field. It also seems quite content to allow Danica to do as she pleases. You even had Brian France getting all jolly about a competitor intentionally wrecking someone and now the very same officials are feigning this fake disgust over Kenseth's actions. Nascar created this mess in the same way incompetent referees let a game get out of hand and carnage ensues. They set the tone, allowed whatever to happen with no consequences, and are now picking up the pieces. These people are not capable of running this sport. They have proven this time and time and time and time again. They need to go.

    1. Couldn't have said it better myself. Nascar brought this onto itself. Kenseth is the victim of Nascar's spinelessness and is now being made an example for doing just the that corporate Nascar has been promoting up through Kansas. Brian France said Logano wrecking Kenseth was quintessential Nascar. If that's the case, then the payback was even more quintessestial Nascar. You race others as they race you. Logano had it coming. I hope there is some informal policy among the drivers to make sure Logano gets wrecked out of the next three races. It would be just desserts.

  5. If Nascar had sat down with Matt and Joey after Kansas and told both of them that the feud had to end now or else, maybe this whole mess could have been avoided. When you initiate a format where elimination is possible but still have every team still on the track, this is what you get. Nascar should not be surprised that this sort of behavior is the outcome.

  6. Anonymous10:04 AM

    Brad didn't intentionally take out Kenseth. If you carefully watch all the replay angles you will see that over the course of a lap or so the 41, 2, and 22 were bumper to bumper on the inside and 20 was side by side with the 2. $1 got in rear of 2 and and that caused the initial contact where 2 got into the 20 and the ensuing juggling around cause another contact. racing incident plain and simple. aside from that, if Brad needed a good finish or a win to proceed to the next round why would he risk trying to wreck someone else?

  7. Anonymous11:43 AM

    Dave, you bring up what I think is exactly the crux of the problem and that is the 'old guard' vs. the 'new guard' and quite frankly it's the old boys that are acting like spoiled, immature brats. What Harvick did ON PURPOSE at Talladega and what Kenseth did ON PURPOSE at Martinsville are glaring examples of more seasoned and supposedly professional drivers acting in anything but a professional manner.
    Harvick should have been docked enough points to get knocked out of the Chase and Kenseth should have been punted for the season.

    And speaking of the old guard acting the fool I couldn't agree with you any more than what you said about Tom Logano the other day. He could learn a thing or two from his son.

    1. Anonymous10:09 PM

      They have been doing the do as I say don't do as I do bs for many years. And it is always the younger drivers fault..and the fans believe it. The only bad behavior I have seen in racing in recent memory has been from the older guys. My household and neighbors agree with you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. It goes beyond the Chase because I don't buy that the drivers truly think they have to fight harder under a format that's merely rewarded point racing instead of actual performance - it's the fundamental lack of professionalism in the past generation of drivers. NASCAR's abdication of responsibility has whetted a growing belligerence and immaturity in drivers; one strains to think of a driver, star or even semi-star, who actually races anyone clean, keeps his mouth shut, and takes accountability. There is need for both NASCAR to reassume responsibility and also for drivers to grow up.

  9. Anonymous9:57 PM

    I always laugh at the "driver code" it seems it is ok. as long as the "offending incident" didn't happen to them. They all are no saints, the elders are the worst..Harvick, Stewart, Yes Gordon..and the poster boy for bad behavior Kenseth. They have gotten away with plenty with a "aw shucks" at the camera, all b.s. They have been very good at whipping the fan base up to their way of thinking. "I did nothing wrong, it was his fault". Pfft Nascar got this one right.

  10. I believe NASCAR blew this totally. IF anything they should have monitored the communication or non communication between Joey and Matt. They said they didnt want this type of behavior? Well do something about it BEFORE it happens. Jesus Christ guys. Joey was acting like a child, pouting he got taken out when hr took out Matt in Kansas. There again, nothing happened from NASCAR. This had to have elevated the temperament of Matt. Bottom line the punishment was to harsh because NASCAR could have prevented this. Not to mention Danica Patrick/David Gililand show continues. She took David out so why not punish her the same as MAtt?? NASCAR, your loosing fans, Get a grip.

  11. I agree with the Jack's comment above. NASCAR has promoted this behavior to the point where nobody knows where the line is. I've listened all week to the talking heads who decry the glee from the crowd for raucously cheering when Matt did the deed. I don't believe the fans really want to see that kind of behavior from their favorite driver no matter who it is. We as fans see it as Justice to what NASCAR is turning a blind eye to. Remember when Earnhardt dumped Labonte at Bristol? What did the fans do? They booed him like crazy in victory lane. Fans loved him driving hard but they didn't want to see their hero cheat another driver out of his victory. Fans know what Logano did to Matt at Kansas! He dumped him for "blocking". He didn't have to dump him! He could've moved him but he didn't. Fans are sick of these guys
    "doing what they gotta do" ! Newman last year pile driving Larson into the wall, Kesolowski ruining Gordans chase hopes last year and claiming it was just "hard racing". For the fans it all adds up! Fans cheered Kenseth last week because they are as fed up as Kenseth was! They cheered for the Justice delivered and well earned for Gordon. Fans aren't buying Brian France's double talk. If I were any driver out there from now on I'd be laying a fender to anyone who comes near me. If it's hard racing Brian wants....I'd give him what he wants before somebody does it to me. Oh....and Harvick......wasn't it lil Joey "racing hard" who pushed Jimmy Johnson completely out of shape on the restart until Johnson had to bail out below the line? Yes it was! How did Ole Harv react to Jimmy doing "what he had to do" to get back on the track? Ole mighty might Harvick wanted to kick ass when JJ came to discuss it. Well doesn't that make him a world class hypocrite for "doing what he had to do" at Talledega? He wrecked the whole field "doing what he had to do"! Those actions very likely killed Jr's win to advance! Jr. Handled it like a man but I'm hopeful he leaves a great deal white 88 paint down the side of Harvicks car from now on. You know...just hard racin!

    1. As a Gordon fan for what seems forever, I was initially pissed when Keselowski ruined Jeff's chances in the Chase. Once things settled down, and after watching the replay about a dozen times, I came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, just hard racing and that twenty years ago, under the same circumstances, Gordon probably would have made the same move.

  12. Anonymous2:18 AM

    Kenseth was wrecked out of 3 races in a row, twice intentionally and the third caused by the Penske kids playing games and stacking up the field on restarts. NASCAR, Brian France, and about 90% of the media cheered the first two incidents and called it good hard racing and just what the sport needed. I called it NASCAR sanctioned demolition derbies. Demolition derbies is about all we have seen since the chase started.

    Then, after being wrecked 3 races in a row, Matt finally had enough. I'm sure he figured if I don't stand up for myself here, they'll beat me to death. He wrecked Logano and the same people who cheered Logano and Harvick want to crucify Matt. Matt's actions were no more intentional than Logano's or Harvick's or, for that matter, Penke's decision to stack up the field on 3 restarts in a row. Remember that Matt was running 2nd when Keslowski got into him. Without that action, Matt would never have been 9 laps down.

    So, go ahead and cheer Logano, cheer Harvick, cheer Brian France, cheer the chase caused demolition derbies that NASCAR is calling racing. Cheer the fact that every race will destroy as many race cars as the plate tracks. After all, it's good hard racing.

    Cotton Morgan
    Bronte, Tx

  13. Anonymous9:08 AM

    How come no one brings up the 2011 race at Martinsville? Anyone remember what Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray did during the race? Anyone remember what Kenseth and Vickers did during the race? Seems all of those "boys will be boys" situations were OK but now Kenseth gets two races off for the exact same stuff. NASCAR must believe that the fan base has either a very shot memory or not memory at all. Of course, the way we get treated might be a part of the reason why Texas had the attendance it did yesterday.