Staid. Safe. Professional. Boring.
That was how people described driver Matt Kenseth before Sunday, and it’s also how old-school NASCAR fans have increasingly described their sport. Once known for its edge, stock car racing has devolved in many fans’ eyes into a battle for points and corporate sponsorships above all else.
But when Kenseth put race leader Joey Logano into the wall on lap 455 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, it was more than retribution for Logano’s hard-racing efforts two weeks earlier. The crash and the disparate reactions to it by fans and NASCAR showed just how much the governing body and Logano himself reap what they sow.
Make no mistake, what Kenseth did Sunday was dangerous, bull-headed and short-sighted — opposite everything the 43-year-old has been known as during his championship-winning career. Credited for his level-headedness, Kenseth is the poster boy for the “new” NASCAR of more than a decade ago, in which winning races became secondary to driving cautiously, avoiding conflict and coasting to solid “points” performances en route to a dull, overall Sprint Cup title.
To inject new life into the series, NASCAR did a couple things. In 2007, it revamped the “Chase for the Nextel Cup,” as it was then known, to bolster the importance of winning races in capturing a championship. (The Chase was originally instituted in 2004 almost as a direct response to Kenseth’s points-driven 2003 Winston Cup title.) Around that same time, Logano and Brad Keselowski began their careers on the major circuit, taking the element of brashness brought by predecessors Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and revving it up to 12 on scale of 1 to 10.
The message was clear: NASCAR wanted attitude. It wanted aggressiveness. It wanted drama.
Logano and Keselowski, intentionally or coincidentally, became fixated on Kenseth, the driver least likely to retaliate. It’s what bullies always do. But Kenseth turned out not to be so easy a mark.
There was last year’s Charlotte race, which concluded with a garage alley fracas between Kenseth and Keselowski. Then, with a berth into the Eliminator round on the line two weeks ago in Kansas, Logano spun Kenseth, who with a weaker car was trying to hold off the hard-charging No. 22 Ford. To be fair, Logano had a race to win, too, but it’s doubtful he needed to wreck Kenseth’s clearly inferior machine. It was a matter of expediency over need.
Logano claimed it was just hard racing, but for the veteran Kenseth, who didn’t win a single race in 2014, it was legacy-altering. While much has been rightly made of Jeff Gordon’s impending retirement, the reality is Kenseth is just one year younger and doesn’t have many years of contention left. In Kenseth’s mind, Logano’s “hard racing” may have robbed him of his best opportunity to retire with “two-time champion” on his resume — no small difference as far as the annals of history are concerned.
And so, with a battered car and no chance at a championship this season, Kenseth took the opening provided to him Sunday when Logano went high to lap him at Martinsville. Going into the turn, Kenseth floored the throttle, driving Logano into the wall and out of the race.
NASCAR? Chagrined. Fans? Ecstatic.
Whether out of dislike for Logano, rooting for Gordon (who suddenly became the favorite and went on to win the race) or sheer enjoyment of watching hunks of metal get mangled, fans cheered loudly for Kenseth’s act. Logano skittered out of his car hopping mad. NASCAR is likely to issue a suspension for Kenseth. Both, meanwhile, will continue to be at their disingenuous best.
Wish for aggressive driving and martial law, and drivers who feel wronged will take matters into their own hands. Muscle opponents out of the way for victories, and vengeance will arrive at the worst possible time. That’s the reality NASCAR and drivers of Logano’s ilk created for themselves, and crying foul about it now only makes them sound more clueless.
Thumbnail photo via Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports Images