Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage hesitated to go with this ad campaign, but NASCAR's decision to not suspend Carl Edwards helped him make his final decision.
"Have at it, boys."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said those words in a January news conference. While we knew they would change racing, no one thought it would occur in such a spectacular manner in only the season's fourth race.
Let me say right up front that I really like both Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. Edwards is an incredible talent and one of the truly nice guys I've dealt with in my career in this sport. He will win NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, and I'll pay him my ultimate compliment -- he's old school.
And Keselowski is a sharp young guy who is a bit on the wild side, much as I remember a young Dale Earnhardt or a young Ernie Irvan. Those comparisons are high compliments. Keselowski and I text back and forth, and I always offer him encouragement. He's going to be huge, and I'll offer him the same compliment -- he's got some old school in him, too.
Jimmie Johnson had his car mangled during last season's Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. The message, as taken by TMS's promotional campaign: "Door Dings. Approved."
Remember: The old-school way in NASCAR is to defend yourself. Sometimes it's immediate, sometimes it's on the track and sometimes it's off the track. It has been going on for decades. Both of these guys know and embrace old school.
After finding out that, fortunately, nobody was injured in Sunday's incident, thoughts immediately turned to -- what else? -- promotion. We've riled some people up over the years with some of our advertising. That's typically a good thing in advertising and marketing.
But understanding the sensitivity of this terrifying accident and recognizing the injuries -- or worse -- that could have occurred, how do you use this incident in promotion without going over the line?
So I discussed and debated the issue with myself. I discussed and debated it with key people on staff here at Texas Motor Speedway. (Yes, the staff debates me, and these people are very smart and in touch with the art of promotion. I hate "yes men.") But I just wasn't sure. In fact, I didn't sleep well Monday night because I was still debating internally.
And then NASCAR made its ruling on further punishment for Edwards: three races on probation. No suspension. No points penalized. No fine.
NASCAR made the right call. But the call also reiterated, "Have at it, boys."
AP Photo/Nick Wass
Joey Logano's car flipped repeatedly during last season's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. Gossage's ad pitch: "Tailgating. Approved."
So my answer was easier. "You have to do it." It's one of the reasons the crowds at NASCAR Sprint Cup races are among the top five here all year.
Our ad campaign is "Approved." You perhaps have seen the ads and the billboards. A shot of Jimmie Johnson's crumpled car with the headline, "Door Dings. Approved." Or a shot of a wild-eyed Juan Pablo Montoya, headlined, "Road Rage. Approved." Or a shot of Joey Logano's car flipping over and over, reading, "Tailgating. Approved."
Who approved it? I don't know. You? Me? Some other fan? Some other driver? That's up to you to decide. We're just causing the debate to take place.
So a shot of the infamous incident at Atlanta shows Edwards driving away as Keselowski's car flips in the air. The headline reads, "Have at it, boys. Approved."
Who approved it?
That's the point: Debate among yourselves. Did Edwards approve it? Did Keselowski approve? How about NASCAR, by virtue of its light punishment? Other fans? Do you?
It's a hot topic, and that's Promotion 101. I don't want to offend either driver, but both eagerly pursued reaching the top level of American motorsports. And scrutiny comes with the territory.
The spotlight gets hot. Things happen. Welcome to the big leagues, boys!
I'd be negligent in my role as promoter if I didn't point out to you that the three-race probation will take place at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix. The first race Edwards will run when the probation is lifted?
NASCAR had no choice. When its chairman, Brian France, proclaimed in January that NASCAR Sprint Cup racing was a full-contact sport, he meant it. When Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said, "Have at it, boys," he turned them loose.
In neither of those statements is there a qualifier. Nobody said, "But don't go too far." There was no inference that there was a line.
So there was no standard, no line for NASCAR to point to in order to tell Edwards he went too far. And as over the top were the results of Edwards' instant justice, NASCAR really couldn't issue severe punishment on Edwards.
You can bet this week that NASCAR will meet with the drivers and teams to discuss the issue. The United States Supreme Court ruled that it "knows pornography when it sees it." NASCAR will offer a similar dictum about future instances of on-track justice. It will "know it when it sees it." And it will rule accordingly.
But today, with no standard established, NASCAR did the right thing.
Brad Keselowski goes airborne on the frontstretch at Atlanta as Carl Edwards, who caused the flip, drives past. NASCAR parked Edwards.
And Carl Edwards offered swift retribution to Brad Keselowski for what Edwards perceived to be either an intentional or foolish move by Keselowski early in the race (and a few previous to the Atlanta incident) that damaged his car.
And now we have the first true test of NASCAR's new hands-off management style.
Personally, I understand. And, if you are true to yourself and all those things you've said over the last few years, you do too.
Now don't be a hypocrite. You said, "NASCAR just won't let boys be boys. Let them police themselves."
There is a code in all sports. In hockey, had you aggressively checked Wayne Gretzky, best be prepared to drop the gloves. Hum a fastball high and at the
chin in Major League Baseball, and the pitcher for the other team is going to aim at the chin of your first batter. That's the code.
In NASCAR, drivers have long memories. Sometimes payback occurs that day. Sometimes it occurs years down the road. But it occurs. That's the code.
Let me make it clear that Edwards didn't intend to hurt Keselowski, he meant to "punt" Keselowski across the infield grass. He did not deliberately intend to cause Keselowski to wind up landing on his roof at 180 mph. Edwards said as much after NASCAR officials -- appropriately -- sent him to the garage and out of the race after the incident. Additional punishment could well be forthcoming. But Edwards certainly intended to turn Keselowski around even though he was 156 laps behind. Payback is hell.
Anything can happen when an errant car is sent spinning. More often than not, Keselowski would have spun and hit the wall, ending his day. Otherwise, his car would have careened across the grass, requiring a new set of tires and perhaps causing cosmetic damage.
And Edwards' point would have been made.
But one possible outcome could be a flipping car, hitting the wall at high speeds and possibly hurting -- or worse -- the driver, other drivers or a fan. That's not part of the code.
But the old school drivers that you claimed "made this sport," were guilty of the same. They lived by the code.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. hooked Darrell Waltrip as the two raced for the win at Richmond, sending both viciously into the fence.
Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine battled regularly, highlighted by a grudge-match in turn two at NASCAR's all-star race one year.
The Allison brothers -- Bobby and Donnie -- duked it out with Cale Yarborough after Cale and Donnie crashed each other on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Waltrip and Rusty Wallace staged a dramatic fight in the all-star race, resulting in Waltrip's spin in turn four and Wallace winding up in victory lane (Wallace claimed to have never touched Waltrip's bumper -- seemingly supported by video evidence -- while Waltrip suggested Wallace should choke on the winner's purse).
Earnhardt (there's that name again, the one that made you a fan) claimed he only meant to "rattle his cage" after spinning Terry Labonte out in turn two late in a Bristol race to win ... and heard the Bristol crowd's boos for the first time in his career.
So how are NASCAR officials supposed to respond? Do they severely punish Edwards or do they give him a slap on the wrist?
And Edwards knows that payback could well be coming from Keselowski. NASCAR officials know, too. And that cycle has the potential to spiral out of control.
Some say yes. In fact, a recently conducted, highly scientific survey (well, OK, it was really just a question I asked on my Facebook page) reveals that fans are tired of the JJ Dynasty in NASCAR. Approximately 60 percent responded that it was, to quote one, "... a total turnoff." Some of the remaining 40 percent said they "... respect greatness," while others responded by saying, "I ♥ Jr.!!!!!!!!!"
I love intellectual discussions.
So is it hurting NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance?
It's up to other drivers to topple Jimmie Johnson's grasp on NASCAR. Otherwise, his dominance should be appreciated.
I don't think there is any question -- yes, it is hurting the sport. As one respondent said, "It's like watching the same Super Bowl over and over." Another said that Johnson, "makes it look too easy."
But did you turn the TV off when the NFL dynasties of the Dallas Cowboys or the Pittsburgh Steelers were crushing teams week after week en route to multiple Super Bowl rings? Did you care when Richard Petty was dominating NASCAR? Did it run you off when Michael Jordan was dazzling basketball fans with six championships? Or when Tiger... OK, maybe that's no longer a good example. But you get the point.
TV ratings and attendance for those sports didn't suffer. When Jordan's Chicago Bulls came to town, that was one tough ticket. Who didn't want to see Bradshaw, Franco and the Steel Curtain defense during the Steelers run?
Were you as bothered last year when Matt Kenseth had won two of the first three events, just like Johnson this year?
One person suggested it's because Johnson is not from the South, the birthplace and still a hotbed for the sport. The problem with that argument is that only a handful of drivers are from the South. More drivers come from California than any other state. What happened, North Carolina? Where did your drivers go?
And then there are the grassy knoll theorists, who are convinced nobody can win four consecutive titles unless they are cheating. I guess they are looking for a "magic bullet" for their favorite team.
But maybe it was revealed in a few interesting responses that go something like, "It looks like Jr. isn't getting the same equipment as everyone else at Hendrick."
Could that be it? The Junior Nation is so convinced that Rick Hendrick's team is giving the best stuff to Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin (BTW, those three guys, Earnhardt's teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, finished 1-2-3 in the point standings last year while Jr. finished 25th).
No, not likely. Nobody would like to see Earnhardt win, or at least run much better, than Rick Hendrick.
But it could be that people don't appreciate Johnson simply because he's not Dale Jr. "Little E" is cut from a different cloth than other drivers -- owning a night club, hanging with his friends -- but maintains a bit of the blue-collar edge his father was famous for displaying (remember, this is a guy who said if he wasn't racing, he would likely be changing oil in the service department at the local car dealership).
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage sits down with Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas to talk about the track's new sponsorships, beating Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick's impact on both NASCAR and the IRL.
It seems to be all the rage to bash Danica (she's so big, we don't use her last name anymore). She finished 36th Saturday in Las Vegas after wrecking halfway through the Nationwide Series race. For some reason, it's big sport for fans of the sport to talk about her while expressing their exasperation.
If you listen to these fans, you would think Danica doesn't have a friend in the world. I halfway expect to hear her next-door neighbor tell us she won't loan a cup of sugar and that her dog -- said to be man's best friend -- is apparently not Danica's best friend and bit her.
But that's not true. Not close.
The way I believe you can best judge popularity is not by polls or TV ratings, but by souvenir sales. When you plunk down your hard-earned money to buy a T-shirt, a jacket or that all-important shot glass, you are making the ultimate statement of popularity.
Sales for Danica Patrick souvenir items rank among the biggest in NASCAR.
And there I stood at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday. Jeff Gordon's souvenir trailer on my left and Danica's on my right. America's free-enterprise system offered the best possible litmus test of popularity.
The lines in front of the four-time NASCAR champion Gordon's souvenir trailer were two people deep. The lines in front of Danica's trailer, making only her third career NASCAR start, were 40 deep.
The American people (or at least the fans at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) have spoken.
In talking with an executive with one of the biggest merchandise companies in the sport, I learned that Danica souvenir sales already rank among the biggest names in the sport -- Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and the other big names. She's already outselling Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, and Kyle Busch.
The big question is what will sales look like as Danica now turns her attention full-time to the IRL Indy Car Series. The Danica souvenir trailer will still travel to the bigger NASCAR weekends even though she will not be back to the NASCAR tracks until the NFL season starts.
But one thing is for sure. Even though Danica has already left Las Vegas and will not run Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the longest lines will still be at Danica's souvenir trailer.