Can we have just one more race?
Maybe just hang around Homestead-Miami Speedway, and run some kind of Thanksgiving eve special? Or see if Bruton Smith has Lowe’s Motor Speedway booked for Friday night? Or talk to the folks in Las Vegas about holding some kind of 10-car postseason exhibition there prior to the awards ceremony next weekend? As long and as draining as the NASCAR season is, you hate to see it end just when it’s getting good.
And no, we’re not talking about Jimmie Johnson’s record-breaking four consecutive titles — with apologies to the champion, who rightfully celebrated until the wee hours Monday morning on South Beach. We’re talking about anger. And revenge. And drama. And the kind of heated words and mechanical vendettas that NASCAR could honestly use a little more of. We’re talking about Tony Stewart verses Juan Montoya, and Denny Hamlin verses Brad Keselowski, and how terrible it is that they have a whole three months to cool off before they potentially tangle on the race track again.
So is it too late to add one more race weekend? Hey, Kentucky Speedway wants one, right? Sure, it could be a little brisk outside of Cincinnati this time of year, but the running Nationwide Series feud conducted by Hamlin and Keselowski would surely heat it up. And just imagine Montoya and Stewart, parked next to one another in the Sprint Cup garage area for one more week, and the tensions that would exist in that small space between them.
Just to be clear here, we’re not advocating violence. Yours truly does not prescribe to the «go out and hit someone» mentality that some track promoters seem to have. We have to remember that the possibility for danger and injury exists anytime cars are competing against one another at high speeds, and intentionally dumping someone absolutely deserves the kind of two-lap penalty that NASCAR levied against Montoya on Sunday — although how Stewart got off without suffering the same sanction, we’re still not sure.
But goodness, the season-ending weekend in metropolitan Miami was terrific fun, and we’re not even including the nights out on Ocean Drive. It all started on Friday, when Hamlin fired a not-so-subtle warning shot across Keselowski’s bow.
«I’ve been wrecked four times by him. I’ve not wrecked him any. So, it’s a one-sided scale that eventually has to even up. Maybe not fully, but that scale has got to tip a little bit,» said Hamlin, rapidly becoming the most outspoken driver in the garage. «I’ve gotten the short end of the deal every single time, and it’s not just me. He’s wrecked our cars. He’s put our fabricators through hell. And it’s not just us. [There are] four guys at Memphis that he wrecked. There are just a lot of guys, and that’s the part he’s going to have to work on. He’s got the speed and everything. It’s just he thinks that the way he does things is the right way, and truthfully it’s not. Anybody inside this garage that knows anything about the sport will tell you that it’s not.»
And Saturday he did his part to even those scales, booting his rival in the Nationwide event and deadpanning afterward that he couldn’t see because the sun was in his eyes. The crowd loved it, and series champion Kyle Busch defended his teammate by proposing that five drivers team up and wreck Keselowski in each of the first five races of the 2010 season so he has to qualify on time in the sixth. «I’m going to be the leader,» Busch said. «I’m going to ante up everybody else. Maybe you shouldn’t have let the cat out of the bag.»
Evidently, Montoya took notes — because the next day, after a series of on-track incidents that ended with Stewart spinning the Colombian, Montoya patiently waited for his car to be fixed. Then he came back out with one thing in mind, and it was Stewart’s turn to go around. NASCAR warned Montoya that one more incident, and he’d be parked for the remainder of the event. By then, though, the message had already been sent.
Neither driver spoke afterward, but Montoya succinctly summed up his feelings with a post on his Twitter page. «I always said pay back is a b—h,» he wrote, without using the dashes. In a post of his own, Hamlin joked that he must have inspired Montoya. After his victory in the Sprint Cup finale Sunday night, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was asked if he had set a trend.
«I think everyone has got a little fight in them every now and then, especially when they get done wrong or anything,» he said. «… I think it’s just maybe [Montoya] looked at it and said, ‘Well, it’s worth it.’ I thought [Saturday] was worth it, and maybe he thought [Sunday] was worth it. It’s a self-policing sport. NASCAR does a really good job of letting us handle it. They don’t want to get involved, but if it’s something blatant, they’ve got to do it. They don’t have to, but they feel like they need to do something about it, otherwise they’ll hear repercussions from fans saying ‘Why didn’t you do anything about it?’ I won’t say anything else.»
He didn’t need to. To NASCAR’s credit, the sanctioning body hasn’t exactly come across as heavy-handed in all this. There have been on-track penalties, to be sure, like the one-lap punishment Hamlin served for punting Keselowski on Saturday, and Montoya’s two-lap sentence a day later. There have been talking-tos, as there was a day after Hamlin and Keselowski made contact three times in the Nationwide race at Phoenix. But we haven’t even heard the threat of fines or point deductions, at least not publicly. No question, NASCAR is watching all this. But to a large degree, they’re also letting the drivers handle it themselves.
«This garage has a very good way of taking care of its own problems, and usually if you cause the most problems, you’ll have the hardest time,» said Kevin Harvick, who’s had his share of run-ins with a number of other drivers over the years. «It’s pretty simple. It’s self-teaching. I went through that whole road. A lot of times you can fix things by not doing it in a race car. I didn’t see what happened [Sunday], but you have your moments where you lose your mind and lose your temper and you want to just run over the top of somebody. If turnabout is fair play and it’s penalized, then it needs to be penalized. We just all need to know the rules. But I think there’s probably a lot better ways of handling it.»
From a driver standpoint, though, probably none more gratifying and from a spectator standpoint, probably none more fun to watch. As long as drivers don’t start openly slugging one another, NASCAR seems to welcome the energy and drama these incidents create. That much comes straight from the top.
«What we want is drivers who are driving hard, that are driving to win,» chairman Brian France said. «When that happens, you’re going to have some situations where there’s contact. We’re a contact sport. You didn’t see us over-respond when that happened. What happened in the Nationwide race in Phoenix, what you’re always worried about, with retaliation, all those things, is escalation, unintended consequences. But on balance, there’s no question, we’re encouraging drivers. When Carl [Edwards] last year made the last-lap attempted pass [at] Kansas City, you heard us applauding that. You didn’t hear us saying anything other than that was a daring move by one of the better drivers. So we’re pretty much committed. But we also regulate the events. You have to make sure that there are limits to hard driving and rivalries and whatever. But we certainly want them.»
So there you go. Let the feuds continue, within reason. But really, do we have to wait until February to see if these guys are still mad at each other? Is Rockingham or North Wilkesboro available on short notice? Can’t we just have one more race?