(When the sparks fly on track, fan interest goes up, as it did last Sunday in Martinsville)
Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway was a smashing success (pun intended) with fans.
By far feedback from the last short track race of the season has been positive with many calling it the best race of the season.
However not everyone shares that view, including the man who went to victory lane Sunday.
Tony Stewart may have crossed the finish line first and stayed ahead of the fray that included eighteen caution flags for 108 laps, but he wasn’t very impressed with the way most of his fellow competitors conducted themselves.
It’s not hard racing or even an aggressive nature that bothers Stewart but the intentional paybacks and retaliation that ran wild at Martinsville.
“NASCAR is going to have to at some point make these drivers be responsible for their actions amongst each other and not baby-sit and not protect these guys,” Stewart said. “Let them get their butt kicked. That's what used to happen in the old days. You didn't have guys dumping each other and taking cheap shots like that.”
Before the word hypocrite gets tossed Stewart’s way, the two-time Sprint Cup Series champion is well aware of his early reputation as a barroom brawler on the race track.
However Stewart says he understood fairly quickly that using your front bumper repeatedly in order to succeed carried a price.
“I used to be as guilty of it and bad as anybody about taking a cheap shot at guys early,” Stewart said. “But you realize that it's not about the two guys driving the cars out there as much as it's there's a bunch of guys that go back to the shop.
“There's a car owner that spends a lot of money. There's a bunch of crew guys that spend a lot of hours and put a lot of heart and soul into what we have as a product each week with these racecars. I think at times we all forget about that.”
This discussion has been magnified in recent years with the introduction of the “Boys Have at It” era in NASCAR racing. But while the sanctioning body intentions may have been to take a more hands off policy in officiating, Stewart is still unclear of exactly what the mandate meant and its ramifications.
“I'm still trying to figure out what 'have at it' meant,” Stewart said. “I don't know that any of us really knows what's different now than before they said that.”
Stewart thinks there has to be a line and one that is enforced by NASCAR or the sport is in danger of turning itself into a glorified demolition derby.
“NASCAR has to stay involved. You can't just make it a free-for-all obviously,” Stewart said after Sunday’s wreck-marred race. “But when you got guys, Jamie McMurray's car was destroyed, he waited for his opportunity to take out a guy he had a problem with. Whether it was justified or not, he took that opportunity. We got to get away from doing that and let guys settle it in the garage area with guys that have the problem.
“Don't take it out on everybody that works on these things. If him trying to take that other guy out would have taken a third party out that had nothing to do with it, it shows how big a problem you got, and that didn't happen. I'm not picking on Jamie. There were a lot of instances today where guys were going back and retaliating against each other. There's 43 guys out here. You catch an innocent guy in somebody else's problem...”
Stewart wasn’t alone in his assessment of Sunday’s behavior. Denny Hamlin, who was gunning for a fifth career Martinsville, win was in the mix until he was shoved out of the way in the last laps dash to the checkered flag.
Hamlin understood the nature of short track racing leads to contact more often than not but in his view there’s a limit to how things should be handled.
“There’s a point and it’s almost like it’s out of control,” Hamlin said. “Eventually, someone’s going to get hurt in this whole thing because we keep sending guys in the corner and in the wall. These are deadly machines. Everyone who gets run into then pound the guy that runs into him. Eventually, there’s nothing good that’s going to happen from everyone to keep retaliating like this.”
Then there’s Jimmie Johnson’s take on the situation, which might be seen as sour grapes by some from the guy who wound up finishing second behind Stewart.
Johnson had a sizeable lead that was wiped out on the day’s last caution that was triggered by a multi-car incident involving Brian Vickers, who was involved in perhaps a half dozen altercations.
The turn of events definitely impacted Johnson’s run to victory lane but the five-time champion provided a wider view of how he believes retaliation is conducted.
"When you're on the race track and someone wrongs you, you have some decisions to make in how you want to handle that,” said Johnson. “Each man's decision how they want to handle it. I don't agree with the way things were handled at the end."
But even with some of the sport’s heaviest hitters like Stewart and Johnson – who carry seven Cup titles between then – sharing their distaste for the style of driving currently on display, it probably won’t change anytime soon.
There’s no arguing NASCAR’s popularity spikes when drama and controversy are in the mix.
The tightest Chase in the format’s history and a competitive season that has seen 18 different winners including six first timers might not be enough to generate the kind of interest NASCAR needs.
Hot tempers, high emotions, scores settled and wrecks – preferably lots of them – is what the majority of fans want. That has come through loud and clear after Sunday’s race in Martinsville.
And it’s come at the expense of respect and sportsmanship - may they rest in peace.
|More NASCAR coverage|