CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In the closing laps at Martinsville Speedway, Jeff Gordon could see Dale Earnhardt Jr. ahead of him with enough time to formulate a plan on how to handle his teammate if Gordon could catch him.
Earnhardt had been eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field one week earlier and was racing only for a trophy. Gordon, still eligible to win the title, wanted to win last week to grab the automatic berth into the final round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
So what would have happened?
“I would have moved him for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Gordon said after finishing second to Earnhardt at Martinsville. “Everybody who is out there racing has to weigh risk versus reward. For me, to win this race, it’s worth taking a lot of risk, even if you upset your teammate.
“I think everybody out there that’s not in the Chase understands that if that guy can win that race and put himself in Homestead for the championship, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get the bumper or get slammed or something.”
Well, Gordon got slammed on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway and he didn’t like it one bit. He confronted Brad Keselowski on pit road following the race, and an exchange of words escalated quickly — with an assist from Kevin Harvick — into a full-blown melee between the crews.
Both champions were left bloodied — Gordon’s lip and Keselowski spitting blood after taking a shot to the cheek — even though neither driver appeared to throw a punch or get close enough to each other to actually fight.
But for the second time in four races, Keselowski was attacked in a post-race fracas because his aggressive driving upset someone. It happened at Charlotte last month when Denny Hamlin had to be restrained from going after him, then Matt Kenseth jumped him from behind before he was quickly pulled away.
This time, Gordon was primed for a smack-down. He called his shot on his team radio when he said he was going to beat up Keselowski, who on a restart during an overtime two-lap sprint to the finish tried to wedge his car in between Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson to grab the lead.
There were two laps left at the time and Keselowski, in a hole in the Chase standings, needed that win to grab one of the four spots in the Nov. 16 championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He saw a gap and went for it, just as any driver with his season on the line should have done. Gordon himself said just seven days earlier everyone should expect Chase drivers to be aggressive.
The problem was that Keselowski and Gordon made contact, causing Gordon to spin after his tire went flat. Racing for a win and a spot at Homestead moments earlier, he wound up finishing 29th and is fourth in the eight-driver Chase field.
It’s understandable that Gordon was angry. But it’s unfair to hold Keselowski to a different standard, even if his body of work has drawn the ire of the majority of the garage.
Keselowski had as much on the line as Gordon, and it was a go-for-broke, risk versus reward moment where Keselowski let it all hang out.
“Brad Keselowski is a champion who competes to win in every race, which is what I expect of him,” team owner Roger Penske said in a statement Monday. “While the actions by others following the race in Texas were unfortunate, Brad has my 100 percent support as we now move on to Phoenix for the next stage of the NASCAR championship.”
The late Formula One champion Ayrton Senna said repeatedly throughout his career that drivers always compete to win. “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, we are competing to win,” he said in 1990.
Senna and so many other greats raced under those standards. Gordon himself said just a week ago that aggression is warranted at this stage of the season. Why is not OK for Keselowski to do the same?
Some other elements of the Sunday night fight that should be addressed:
HARVICK THE PUPPET MASTER: The pit road fight might never have happened had Harvick not rushed in from behind the scrum and shoved Keselowski in the back toward the tempest. Fists were flying seconds later, and Harvick backed his way out and returned to a bystander role.
Harvick is the quintessential Machiavellian character in NASCAR. He’s always loved stirring the pot and pulling the strings from behind the curtain. It’s part of his game, and climbing into the head of his competitors gives Harvick an edge.
He knew exactly what he was doing with that shove: Also in a hole in the Chase, Harvick benefits from all the other title contenders being locked into a drama that disrupts their focus as they head this week to Phoenix.
Harvick has won three of the last four races at Phoenix and should be the favorite Sunday. But Gordon was in another league when Hendrick Motorsports tested at Phoenix last month, and Keselowski has already proved once in this Chase (at Talladega) that he can produce in must-win races.
Unless NASCAR takes issue with Harvick’s role as instigator in this brawl, he walks away scot-free as two of his top rivals find themselves in an uncomfortable spotlight.
CREW MEMBERS: Harvick contends he was simply telling Keselowski to handle his business after the on-track incident with Gordon, and there’s been fan backlash that Keselowski was hiding behind his crew members when Gordon approached.
The reality is, Gordon and Keselowski were never getting close to each other to have a reasonable discussion or even a fight. There’s always a cavalry of adrenaline-fueled crew members who jump into these post-race confrontations, and Sunday night’s was a Hendrick Motorsports schoolyard brawl. Punches were thrown from every direction and multiple video angles show Keselowski took at least one to the face and one to the back of the head.
The most egregious action came from a member of Kasey Kahne’s crew who rushed in from behind and threw haymakers in defense of Hendrick driver Gordon, who at one time grabbed at Keselowski’s firesuit but was quickly pulled away.
NASCAR is reviewing the entire matter, and Hendrick Motorsports said Monday it was also doing an internal review. Kenseth dodged a penalty after Charlotte because he didn’t throw a punch at Keselowski, and NASCAR doesn’t have much of a reason to punish Gordon or Keselowski.
But the goonlike behavior from the crews must sternly be addressed — and halted. The drivers started this on the track and had the right to end it off of it without the assistance of others.
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