The new playoff style Chase format was designed to put the emphasis on winning. Win and you’re in. Depending upon who you ask, it has brought out the best or the worst in the drivers.
Brad Keselowski has been center stage in this debate. During the race at Texas Motor Speedway, he attempted to pass Jeff Gordon by squeezing through a gap between Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. As they went three wide, Keselowski made contact with Gordon cutting his left rear tire and causing Gordon to spin out, relegating him to a 29th place finish.
After the race an angry Gordon confronted him but Keselowski didn’t seem to have much interest in discussing the incident, saying only that, “There was a hole.” Crew members of both teams gathered and a brawl of epic proportions broke out.
Keselowski was unapologetic post-race saying, “We were just racing for the win. I didn’t wreck him, just raced him hard. He left a hole. Everything you watch in racing, if you leave a hole you’re supposed to go for it. It closed back up and we made contact. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day. I wanted to win the race, and that was our opportunity. It just didn’t come together.”
“I’ve been through a lot of rivalries,” he continued, “I’ve got a little blood on me right now, I’ve been roughed up, put in the grandstands, wrecked, and done all that stuff, and I’m still here fighting. It’s not going to change the way I race. I race with 100-percent intensity and race for the win. That’s what our fans deserve in NASCAR.”
After several days to cool off, Gordon explained his intense reaction.
“I have no issue with a guy being aggressive and making a bold move,” Gordon said. “If you win the race and the guy that you slam finishes third or fourth, I will be the first one to stand up and say, ‘That was awesome, that was a great move.’
“But when you don’t win the race and you ruin a person’s day, then there are consequences that you are going to have to deal with. How you handle yourself after that is a part of that.”
Denny Hamlin, who was involved in a dispute with Keselowski after the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, expressed a similar sentiment about Keselowski’s dismissive attitude.
You’re just looking for someone to say, ‘Man, I’m sorry I ruined your day. I screwed up. I apologize,'” Hamlin said. “When that doesn’t get said, then it immediately lights a fire in your stomach that he doesn’t have any remorse. He’s just like, ‘Oh well, it’s your problem.’
“If you ask me do you want a championship trophy or do you want the respect of your peers, I will take the respect from my peers because that trophy, they can’t put in my casket,” Hamlin said. “What’s the fun of a NASCAR party that nobody shows up to?”
Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, it was Ryan Newman who caused another controversy when he made the decision to push Kyle Larson out of the way to finish 11th and secure his spot in the final race for the championship.
“I did what I had to do,” Newman said. “I’m not proud of it, but I think if he (Larson) was in my position he would have done the same.”
Larson salvaged a 13th place finish and while he was obviously unhappy, said that he understood Newman’s motivation.
“Coming to the finish, there were a lot of cars racing really hard,” Larson said in a team statement Monday. “I knew the 31 (of Newman) was right around me and knew he needed to gain some spots to keep from getting eliminated from the Chase.
“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there. I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position.”
Newman’s finish put him one point ahead of Gordon, ending his championship hopes for this year. Yet Gordon is proud of his team and the integrity he feels he has maintained throughout the season.
“It’s disappointing, Gordon said. “We have a lot to hold our heads high about, the way we raced this race and this season. I hope we taught people that you can race clean and you don’t have to wreck people and ruin people’s season.”
Is winning the only thing that matters? Opinions are as varied among the drivers as they are among their devoted fans. However, for better or worse, I have no doubt that whoever wins the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship will waste little time reflecting on how they got there as they hoist their trophy high.