NASCAR's 'Have at it' Policy Yields Action, Feuds
"Boys, have at it," Pemberton said on January 21 during the sanctioning body's stop on the annual preseason media tour.
Pemberton's words had an almost immediate effect, leading to more spirited and aggressive racing -- and more paybacks -- on the pavement and concrete of the sport's weekly palaces of speed. No more must drivers always be glancing over their shoulders to worry about what kind of consequence NASCAR might issue for an on-track maneuver.
The most spectacular example of having at it, and of NASCAR's new leniency, happened just weeks into the new 2010 season.
Carl Edwards, having felt utterly wronged by early race contact that eliminated any shot of winning again at the site of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win, stewed impatiently in the Atlanta Motor Speedway garage, waiting for his car to be fixed, and fixing his own eye upon the black No. 12 car that had ended his day.
Time nearly ran out for Edwards' retribution. But just laps from the end, Edwards got his shot. Thanks to a run off of turn four on the track's dog-legged front straightaway, Edwards was able to pull up on Brad Keselowski's Dodge and then steer to the left. It took just a flick of Edwards' white glove-clad wrists to turn Keselowski's car.
Keselowski spun sideways. Then, the rear of his car caught a massive swell of air, sending it skyward at 180 miles per hour. A half-somersault later, Keselowski's massively intense hit on the wall with the roof of his car was heard 'round the world.
But more importantly, it was heard loud and clear in the NASCAR garage area. So this, the competitors thought, was "boys, have at it."
It took just days for NASCAR to affirm it: Edwards wasn't suspended or fined, and instead just given a slap on the wrist in the form of a three-race probation and probably an edict from NASCAR to avoid crashing other drivers in places where they can get airborne and otherwise have horrific crashes.
The stern test of NASCAR's new policy early in the season was undoubtedly controversial. Drivers have been hurt -- and hurt badly -- in crashes that looked a lot less gruesome than Keselowski's roof-first hit on the wall. But by the same token, it opened many eyes -- NASCAR was serious about the new, more wide open racing policy.
Examples certainly abound as NASCAR reaches its halfway point in the 2010 season.
Just weeks ago, a long day at Pocono Raceway was winding down with Denny Hamlin firmly in position to win. As his No. 11 exited turn three, trouble brewed behind him.
Kevin Harvick, charging inside of Joey Logano for a spot in the top-five, sent Logano's No. 20 for a smoky loop as they entered turn three. The incident was much more than Harvick being aggressive late in the race. Instead, this was a latest chapter in a long-simmering feud between the two.
It also left us with a candidate for NASCAR's best one-liner of the season when Logano, 20, informed the world that Harvick's wife Delana "wears the firesuit in the family".
Certainly a brash move for a young driver.
"I think with the leash let off everybody, everybody wants to gain that position and you have to get aggressive to pass because the competition is so close. Sometimes you make mistakes and you run into guys and people get mad and things escalate from there," Harvick said this week. "It seems to get more exciting every week and it seems like we come home with more bent fenders every week, so that's okay. As long as it's good to watch and everybody is racing hard, that's what it's all about."
And just last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a late-race duel between two champions for the victory showed the effect of NASCAR's new policy. But, as champions often can do, no sheet metal was drastically abused in the process.
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson both smelled blood as the laps ticked off in the 301-miler at NHMS. Busch, especially, knew his car was good on a short run and that any chance he would have for his third win in 2010 would come by getting around and driving away from Johnson early.
The result was Busch's decision to nudge Johnson out of the way in turn three. Nudge, perhaps, is a little soft of a word after Johnson nearly lost control from the contact. Regardless, Busch slid under for the lead while Johnson saved his ride.
"If I was in the grandstands, I would love to see a little bit of bump-and-run and watch the guy run him back down and do the same to get by," Johnson said afterwards, which was a great after-the-fact foreshadowing of exactly what he did.
Johnson got his grip back, put his head down and went to work. After the race, Johnson said that while he was tracking Busch down, he had visions of wrecking him in a remarkable fashion. It wasn't necessary.
A slight bump of his own was all Johnson needed to get the position back and pull away for his 52nd career win.
This list, certainly, isn't all-inclusive. NASCAR has also seen a massive pileup take out the contenders at Texas, teammates ruffling each other's feathers in the All-Star Race and plenty more.
One thing is for sure, though. NASCAR's new mandate has certainly turned up the racing intensity more than just a notch.