For a sport that most consider to be mundane and boring, the 2015 NASCAR season has been quite the opposite. On the exciting side, we’ve witnessed Kyle Busch suffer a broken leg and foot right before the season-opening Daytona 500, only to triumphantly come back at Charlotte (the 12th race of the season) and go to victory lane four times in his first nine starts–a run that helped him punch his ticket to the Chase, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
The sport’s youth movement is well in effect as well. Young Ryan Blaney has performed well when given the opportunity to race with the Wood Brothers, with finishes of 4th at Talladega and 7th at Kansas leading the way. We also can’t forget about Joey Logano, the 25-year-old racer who leads the series with 6 wins and has fully established himself as an “elite” driver. Finally, the “underdog” story of Martin Truex, Jr. and the one-car operation at Furniture Row Racing has been heartwarming for the NASCAR fans.
With that being said, we’ve also seen plenty of outrageous rulings (and non-rulings) from the sanctioning body, the most recent being announced just this evening; after it was determined that Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville last Sunday, the driver of the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will be suspended for the next two races, although Kenseth does plan to appeal. This means virtually nothing, though, as it is highly unlikely that the penalty will be reduced. And a lot of racing fans aren’t happy about it.
In short, NASCAR is making an example of Matt Kenseth, while at the same time making a fool of itself.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing. Not sure where I’m going here? Let’s flashback to earlier this season, when allegations came out about Kurt Busch and the domestic abuse of his ex-girlfriend.
The iron fist of NASCAR immediately came down hard on the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, as “guilty until proven innocent” was in full effect–and NASCAR wanted to take the most PR-conscious route possible. Also, it wasn’t the best timing, as the NFL was incorrectly handling its own abuse cases. NASCAR couldn’t afford to let Busch race until he was proven innocent, which is somewhat understandable.
In the end, Kurt wasn’t allowed in a race car until the fourth race of the season at Phoenix, and then had a win stolen from him by NASCAR the very next week at Fontana. I wrote about all of this soon after, and to refresh your memory (or read it the first time) you can do so by clicking here.
NASCAR tried to make an example out of Kurt Busch at Fontana. There’s no way they could let a possible woman beater win in Sprint Cup! And they failed to make an example of Kurt Busch. He went on to win at Richmond and again at Michigan, and is currently one of eight drivers still vying for this year’s championship.
Let’s Talk About Kenseth vs. Logano
Flash-forward to October 18, 2015 and we’re in the thick of NASCAR’s playoffs at Kansas Speedway. Joey Logano, who won the previous week at Charlotte, has already punched his ticket to the second-last round of the playoffs, while Matt Kenseth and the #20 Toyota is looking to do the same. Kenseth had been dominant all race long, but Logano was a bit faster in the closing laps. As any other racer would do, Kenseth was doing all he could to keep Joey’s #22 Ford behind him.
Eventually Logano got frustrated enough that he gave Matt Kenseth a shove going into turn one, and the #20 Toyota spun out. Joey went on to victory lane that day in Kansas and Kenseth finished 14th, promising that Logano would get payback soon enough. The next week at Talladega, Kenseth’s championship hopes would officially be exhausted while Logano went to victory lane for the third race in a row.
Logano called what happened at “hard racing.” I call it “disrespectful and intentional.”
Joey Logano is an elite race car driver that has the talent, speed, and team to win multiple championships. What he lacks is respect and integrity. This isn’t the first run-in Logano has had with a respected veteran in NASCAR’s top series. Back in 2013, him and Tony Stewart threw punches after the Fontana race (video here) after Stewart was upset with Logano’s blocking–the same thing Joey was frustrated with Kenseth with at Fontana this year–and said he drives “like a prick” while “bitching about everyone else.”
In that same race, Logano was accused of wrecking Denny Hamlin (while racing for the win), which resulted in Hamlin being sidelined with a compound fracture in his lower back. There’s also the heated exchange that Ryan Newman and Joey Logano had at Michigan in 2010 (video here). And let’s not forget about the multiple run-ins that Logano has had with Kevin Harvick, including Pocono in 2010 (video here) and this year’s Sprint Unlimited (video here).
It’s worth noting that after that incident in Pocono, Harvick was quoted as saying, “You can’t talk to [Joey], he’s 20.” Harvick’s wife went on to write on her Twitter page, “with age comes wisdom and respect.” It’s clear that Joey Logano still has a long way to go in regards to wisdom and respect.
With his ticket punched to the next round of the Chase, Joey Logano was racing for nothing. Another win did him no good, as he would still be guaranteed a spot in the round of 8. Also, if everything else remained the same, he would have gone to victory lane at Martinsville. Meanwhile, Joey ruined Kenseth’s shot at this year’s championship with his aggressiveness in Kansas.
One could argue that, by spinning the #20 Toyota, Joey was taking out a legitimate championship contender. But is that really how you want to win a championship–by avoiding actually competing against one of the best teams in the series? The #22 Ford was faster than Kenseth’s #20 Toyota in the closing laps at Kansas, and if Joey would have had some patience, he probably could have cleanly passed Kenseth before the race was over. And if he didn’t? Guess what, it wouldn’t matter because he, meaning Logano, would have still made it to the next round of the playoffs.
Harvick’s Move at Talladega
The following week at Talladega, more controversy erupted as NASCAR once again made some questionable calls. They implemented a rule that only one “green-white-checkered” finish would take place, and we were all set to restart that final time. However, Kevin Harvick’s #4 Chevrolet had a motor that was going south in a hurry, and that caused half of the field to wreck on the restart. Most fans thought the race was over, due to NASCAR’s newly implemented rule. But the race officials said it wasn’t actually a restart (even though it was) and they would have to re-do it.
Once the field got lined back up, Harvick’s engine was even closer to blowing up. The green flag waved–I guess this constituted an actual restart in NASCAR’s eyes–and the same thing happened: the field bunched up thanks to Harvick, only this time it seemed as though he intentionally caused the wreck.
The in-car camera of the #4 car (video here) shows Harvick deliberately turning the wheel to the right and spinning out Trevor Bayne, causing the wreck of half the field and the end of the race. Not coincidentally, that wreck (and finalization of the running order) allowed Harvick to sneak into the next round of the playoffs on points, while he would have been eliminated if the field would have ran the final three laps.
Kevin Harvick took matters into his own hands at Talladega and altered the outcome of a race for his benefit. And NASCAR had no problem with this.
So, flash forward one week and the wreck at Martinsville happens. Matt Kenseth, who was recently caught up in a wreck while running inside the top 5–a fact that many people forget about–gets back onto the track several laps down, without a doubt looking for revenge against Joey Logano. Before most realized what was happening, the #22 Ford and the #20 Toyota were wrecked, both of their days done. Kenseth was smiling, Logano was pissed, and the fans cheered louder than they do what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. takes the lead at Daytona.
NASCAR, on the other hand, had a decision to make.
To nobody’s surprise, it was decided that Matt Kenseth would be suspended for his actions at Martinsville. What was surprising, however, was the fact that it was for two races, not the typical one. NASCAR clearly defined a newly-established line: if you mess with a title contender and you’re out of the playoffs, you will pay the price. But if you’re both still in it, you won’t. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
NASCAR Encourages This Behavior
When NASCAR unveiled the new Chase format, where segment winners are essentially given a “free pass” into the next round, it made it clear that the behavior that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is encouraged. If this whole elimination-style method of crowning a champion didn’t exist, Kevin Harvick would have dropped to the bottom of the race track at Talladega and let the field pass him. Matt Kenseth probably wouldn’t have wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville, either.
Kenseth had his championship hopes taken from him by Joey Logano at Kenseth thanks to this new playoff system. In the racing world, it’s not uncommon for drivers to try and get back something that was taken for them–and that’s exactly what Matt Kenseth did at Martinsville. Logano took away his championship hopes, so he tried to take away Logano’s.
The late Dale Earnhardt is idolized by fans of this sport, partly because of his aggressive driving nature. Now NASCAR has allowed for situations to arise where its top drivers can use aggression and be rewarded with the ultimate prize–the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. And this brings to light a major question: does this new playoff system, which can be wildly entertaining for the fans, really crown a true champion? In 2014 it did, but we’ll have to wait and see which driver will take home the hardware this year.
With each new decision on arising controversies, NASCAR continues to walk that fine line between a sport’s governing body and the director’s of a sports entertainment league, not unlike the pro wrestling matches on TV. The first mistake they made was calling Joey Logano’s actions at Kansas “acceptable.” The second and much larger) mistake was not penalizing Kevin Harvick after Talladega.
Matt Kenseth deserved to be punished for what he did at Martinsville, but most will agree that suspending him two races was far too harsh. NASCAR drew the line of how its drivers should act while trying to veer more toward a respectable sports industry. But the fans got what they wanted in Martinsville, and that in itself was one step closer to this sport becoming a circus act. The damage to NASCAR’s credibility was done well before the race at “The Monster Mile” took place, and it will probably be a while before the sport will have the chance to repair it.