The 2011 NASCAR season is one race away from going into the record book. All three of the sanctioning body’s top divisions have featured tight championship battles going down to the wire but none closer than the three points separating Cart Edwards from Tony Stewart in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But when the Cup champion is finally crowned in Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway it might be the second most memorable story of the season.
Unfortunately a year marred by a series of intentional paybacks and retaliation is what 2011 may be most remembered for producing.
The “Boys Have at It” era reached yet another low last Sunday in Phoenix when Brian Vickers purposely put Matt Kenseth into the wall as an obvious carryover from their feud at Martinsville two weeks earlier.
Kenseth said he knew it was coming because Vickers had told people all week he planned to extract more revenge for the duo’s several tangles at Martinsville. Vickers denied the accusation saying Kenseth does still have one coming except what happened at Phoenix wasn’t it.
"I wasn't planning on paying him back," Vickers said. "He wrecked me at Martinsville; he got wrecked here. I'm not saying I wasn't going to pay him back; I'm just saying that wasn't it."
NASCAR saw it as a “racing incident” and did nothing to punish Vickers chalking it up to just two drivers competing for the same piece of real estate.
But only a week earlier, the sanctioning body came down with a mighty blow on Kyle Busch for his intentional wrecking of Ron Hornaday in a Texas Motor Speedway truck race. Busch got parked for the remainder of the weekend’s races at TMS including Sunday’s Sprint Cup main event and was also fined $50,000 while being placed on probation until the end of the season. Busch’s problems continued through the following days when sponsors pulled out of agreements and team owner Joe Gibbs lowered the boom internally with disciplinary actions.
All of which begs the question of what the difference was between what Busch did and how Vickers behaved on Sunday.
It’s true that Busch’s actions took place well under caution and that certainly made it a much more egregious affair in the eyes of NASCAR. Insubordination is not a favorite display of behavior of the sanctioning body.
But other than that it’s hard to make a case for Vickers at least not being parked for the remainder of the Phoenix race, as Busch was initially in the aftermath of the Texas tangle.
The inconsistent enforcement in any of these cases has seriously impacted NASCAR’s credibility once again.
The intent of “Boys Have at It” was simple – to allow drivers to race each other hard and not worry about NASCAR stepping in and overly officiate races.
Fans had cried for the return of “rubbin’ is racin” for years and when NASCAR decided to relax its grip the hope was to increase the level of competition and excitement.
But now two years later the creed has turned things into a free for all and created an environment more in line with “wreckin’ is racin’,” which it is absolutely not.
From the moment Carl Edwards flipped Brad Keselowski in a payback move at Atlanta in 2010, the Pandora’s Box was ripped wide open. NASCAR’s mild reaction of basically just probation for Edwards’ act set the bar for how this Wild West environment would be tolerated.
It led to a multitude of intentional paybacks and retaliatory moves that weren’t limited to just the Sprint Cup Series but included ugly incidents in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Time and again NASCAR turned its head and refused to make any kind of call for even the most flagrant of fouls.
And although there was supposedly some kind of line drawn after Busch’s actions in Texas, Sunday’s move by Vickers clearly demonstrates payback crashing is still very much an accepted form of behavior.
It has to stop and immediately is not soon enough.
NASCAR has to step up and do what major league professional sports leagues are supposed to do, govern their events and make the tough calls. Simply sitting back and letting drivers police themselves is not doing anything but giving every race the potential to turn into a county fair demolition derby rather than a big league auto racing event.
It’s ironic that weekly short track officials around the country have less tolerance for the kind of behavior that many of the supposed best drivers in the world have been demonstrating. Any of the blatant spin outs or wrecks that have occurred across NASCAR’s top three divisions in the last two years would have resulted in a short track driver being parked or banned more often than not.
But in NASCAR today it’s not penalized but rather encouraged.
The off season is right around the corner and there will be plenty of time for NASCAR officials to discuss how to reign in this embarrassing behavior and provide some sanity to the sport.
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