- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASCAR should thank its dumb luck. How's this for having a horseshoe stuck up your carburetor? NASCAR held an absolute farce of a race Sunday in Phoenix that descended into a massive brawl among competing pit crews, and included one driver sprinting down pit row hoping to punch out iconic driver Jeff Gordon, yet gained a saner-sounding rising champion in the process?
The only thing Brad Keselowski did wrong was apologize the next day for the lacerating commentary he launched on his sport immediately after the race.
He shouldn't have.
Nothing Keselowski said during his expletive-laced critique was as profane as the fiasco that had just happened at Phoenix International Speedway. And if he indeed holds on to the points lead he grabbed Sunday and wins the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, which culminates this weekend, the folks who run NASCAR should throw Keselowski a parade. They would be getting a new champion and a new face at the top of the sport, just when they badly need something to offset how they've been so cravenly focused on fixing slumping TV ratings and ticket sales that they've been unable to take a similarly honest look at themselves. Or the dangers they're inviting.
The scenes that unfolded Sunday -- the sight of yet another NASCAR driver wrecking someone on purpose, and then the new twist of pit crews charging each other on pit road and later in a near-riot by the garages -- were an embarrassment. And the sight of driver Clint Bowyer having to be restrained by security even before Gordon eventually admitted -- flat-out admitted! -- damn right, he intentionally took out Bowyer's car on his second try near the end of the race because they've had a long-running beef? That was unconscionable.
The same goes for the slap on the wrist Gordon got a day later from NASCAR, which merely fined him $100,000 and docked him 25 points instead of parking him for Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon earned more than $23 million in the past year, according to Forbes magazine. He probably has that much money drop between the cushions of his sofa.
So even if you don't give a dipstick about auto racing, root for the 28-year-old Keselowski to win the overall title Sunday.
At least he had the guts to peel off and say NASCAR should cut out the knuckle-dragging behavior. His seething rant was must-see TV.
"The retaliation is out of control in this sport,'' Keselowski said. "We've got a bunch of drivers that feel like they have to retaliate or they're being challenged as a man, and that's ridiculous. It's not what this sport needs.
"[The sport] needs hard racing; it needs people that go for broke, try to win races and put it all out there on the line -- not a bunch of people that have anger issues.''
Noting how he was criticized by some older drivers for making contact with then-points leader Jimmie Johnson during a late battle for the lead in a race just a week earlier, Keselowski added: "It's the double standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half a dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I'm out of control and have a death wish, and then I see bulls--- like that. That's [expletive] bulls---. That's all you can call that. These guys just tried to kill each other.
"It's just [expletive] ridiculous, and they should be ashamed."
NASCAR needed someone prominent to say: Get a grip. This isn't bumper cars at the local amusement park. It's as if the safety technology has made drivers too confident that they (and fans or workers around the track) will remain unhurt if some wing nut with a grudge starts a four- or six- or 12-car pileup on purpose. Stupid. Given how hard and how long some fans drink as these races go on, it's not unreasonable to wonder when the next rumble will spark a riot in the stands, too. As it was, the Associated Press reported that after Gordon climbed from his car in his garage Sunday, he appeared to be jumped from behind by one of Bowyer's crew members. Police and squad cars came rushing in. When Gordon and Bowyer were hauled into a NASCAR trailer to talk with race officials, sheriff's deputies guarded the door.
If this had been a football mass fight at midfield or -- God forbid -- a reprise of the NBA's Malice at the Palace, people would be talking about what a "menace" such behavior is. Serena Williams literally had that word applied to her after she angrily threatened to shove a tennis ball down a lineswoman's throat at the 2009 U.S. Open. But because this is a bunch of "good ol' boy" white guys in jumpsuits, it's OK for them to indulge in a little road rage by pointing cars going 200 mph at each other -- and then wink and joke about it later?
And it's OK to condone NASCAR continuing to institutionalize such behavior with the "Boys, Have At It" policy it adopted in 2010, which encouraged drivers to "police" themselves?
"The sport was made on fights," said Kevin Harvick, who won the race at Phoenix. "We should have more fights. I like fights. They're not always fun to be in. Sometimes you're on the wrong end. But fights are what made NASCAR what it is."
"Who won the race -- I mean the fight?" runner-up Denny Hamlin jokingly asked. "Who had the best hit?"
Fists are one thing. Hitting each other with fast-moving cars is quite another.
NASCAR had a chance to say "Boys? Enough." It could've sent a message with its punishment of Gordon, a four-time series champ, and blew it. So far, NASCAR president Mike Helton is still sticking to his infamous line that if things go too far, NASCAR "will know it when we see it".
Open your eyes.
Even if you know the bootlegger roots and history of racing -- starting with the fight involving Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers on national television in 1979, thrusting what had been largely a regional Southern sport into the national conversation and a spot on the front page of the New York Times sports section for the first time -- what happened in Phoenix was not OK.
At least Keselowski didn't whiff at saying so.
NASCAR should listen before anything even dumber or more dangerous happens. Some driver(s) could indeed get killed on the track. Debris from some crash could go pinwheeling off the oval and harm spectators. It's happened before and it can happen again.
But it would be unforgiveable if it happens because of some premeditated crash or lousy "have at it" policy.
NASCAR can't say it hasn't been warned.
Collisions are inevitable when these drivers race as hard as they do for the stakes they're chasing. But this prevailing conceit that NASCAR drivers are so good and so omnipotent that they can perfectly control any and all things that might happen when they purposely retaliate against someone at speeds that leave them covering the length of a football field in a second -- that's yet another thing that's beyond ridiculous.
On Sunday, Gordon inadvertently took out Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, too. Sunday's incidents happened even though the drivers had been sternly warned in their prerace meeting not to put others at risk and impact the championship battle. And it was Gordon, of all people -- one of NASCAR's off-track humanitarians -- who didn't listen.
Logano later wrote on Twitter, "When I was young I thought [Jeff Gordon] was the best driver. Now I've lost a lot of respect for him.#verydumb"
Such opinions aren't voiced nearly enough within the sport.
So root for Keselowski to go win the championship Sunday. It would be a nice affirmation. At least someone in NASCAR knows where to draw a line between hard racing and the sort of ethos that the late, great sportswriter Jim Murray observed when he went to the Indy 500 in 1966 -- back in racing's supposed good ol' days -- and penned a line that still shadows the sport today:
"Gentlemen, start your coffins!"