NASCAR revs up feuds on and off track

Jun 25 2011 - 3:58pm

Imagine an NFL team owner grabbing an opposing quarterback in a headlock after a game.

Imagine a big-league ballplayer taking a microphone during pregame introductions and calling an opposing player "an ass."

Imagine a sport in which the competitors talk about respecting each other and then, when the competition starts, basically try to erase each other.

That's NASCAR for you, and in the last couple of years the intensity between drivers has been ratcheted up.

Stock car racing's premier series, the Sprint Cup, and its second level, the Nationwide Series, have been full of on-track tussles, off-track confrontations and harsh words as officials have softened somewhat on levying penalties in favor of trusting the drivers to police themselves.

The Sprint Cup circuit comes to California for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, one of only two road-course races on the schedule. The difficulty in passing on the 2-mile course isn't likely to ease the harsh feelings.

At last year's race, Jeff Gordon angered Elliott Sadler, Kurt Busch, David Ragan and Greg Biffle with a series of what they felt were overaggressive moves. He spun Martin Truex Jr., causing him to drop back into traffic, where he was caught in a multi-car accident.

Truex vowed revenge on his car radio, although he softened his stance a little the next week after Gordon apologized.

No sport has more vows of reprisal than stock-car racing.

Early last year, NASCAR's vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, seemed to tell the drivers it was OK to take the gloves off. "Boys, have at it and have a good time," he said. It wasn't quite "let's get ready to rumble," but it was close.

Even an owner has gotten physical. Richard Childress, 65, was fined $150,000, but he wasn't suspended after he put Kyle Busch, 26, in a headlock and punched him several times. He was furious at Busch for bumping into one of Childress' drivers on a cool-down lap in a truck series race.

At Darlington, S.C., this year, Ryan Newman reportedly punched Juan Pablo Montoya in the NASCAR hauler. Then the heavy hitting started. Busch spun out Kevin Harvick's Chevrolet, Harvick tried to punch Busch through the window of his Toyota, and Busch used his bumper to push Harvick's abandoned car into the pit lane wall. Both drivers were fined $25,000 and placed on probation.

Over the years many drivers would like to have put Busch in a headlock. One of them is Brad Keselowski, one of the young guns on the circuit. Last year at Bristol, the only track that allows drivers to address the crowd during prerace introductions, Busch was loudly booed as he pronounced himself "ready to win." Then it was Keselowski's turn. "Kyle Busch is an ass," he said.

On the phone recently, Keselowski said, "I don't think we're in the sport to make people happy. It's not about making friends (of the other drivers). It's about winning."

Asked if he had a relationship with Busch, he said, "It's nonexistent."

What about Carl Edwards, the current points leader? "The same."

Keselowski has had some memorable -- and dangerous -- tangles with Edwards. At Talladega, Ala., in 2009, Keselowski grabbed his first Cup victory, pushing Edwards near the finish, sending Edwards sailing into the safety fence in a scary crash.

At Atlanta, Edwards drove his damaged car into the garage, waited for his crew to repair it, then returned to the track to intentionally wreck Keselowski. NASCAR gave Edwards a slap on the wrist.

There's an "old boys club" in the series, Keselowski said. "It's pretty obvious that I'm not in it. It has to do with turnover more than anything else. I'm from Detroit, and in the auto companies, you didn't make it to the top of the pecking order if you were a 20-year guy until the 40-year guy retires. In our case, that's guys like Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton."

The established drivers tend to get a free pass when they wreck other drivers' cars, he said.

Are the tussles good for the sport? "There's limits to everything," he said. "Apples are good for you, but if you ate nothing but apples all day, that would be bad."

As to whether they make it more dangerous, Keselowski said, "Racing is and always has been more dangerous than other sports."

Even teammates have had run-ins and exchanged public barbs, including Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, whose first win at Infineon last year helped him take his record fifth straight series championship.

Gordon thinks the skirmishes help the sport. On a conference call last week, he said, "It just shows the passion that we all have, and I think it certainly creates something good to write about and talk about on TV, and that never hurts."

Two other Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, tangled in Sunday's race at Michigan. Martin, 52, is considered the most sporting driver on the circuit, so it was a surprise when Earnhardt angrily accused Martin of running him into the wall.

The two later patched things up. In this intense sport, though, many rivalries are beyond patching up.

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