There were two major stories to come out of Richmond this week. First, we have the victory of Kurt Busch, once again returning to his job, as the amazing wheelman Gene Haas hired him to be for the first time in 35 races. This is also earmarked by the fight of Tony Gibson, a fan and crew favorite in the garage, to overcome his battle with kidney stones to guide the often volatile past champion to the bright lights of the winner’s circle. That, in and of itself, should have been the biggest and most well-seen headline of the week, “Kurt Busch Fights Back to Victory.”
He showed the class of a champion and his crew chief showed the guts of a fighter that wouldn’t give up no matter how much pain he was in. Those two have been a force to be reckoned with since Busch returned and on so many occasions, they have been oh so close to victory. The trials and tribulations of this team overcoming all odds to finally taste sweet champagne.
However, the biggest headline this week once again didn’t involve the winner or the race as a whole. No, it involved the sport’s most popular driver and the sport’s most polarizing one, “Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Collide in Richmond.” It was followed by endless media outlets picking up the “story,” a term I use lightly here, and running away to the circus with it; placing blame and making assumptions here and there to satisfy their weekly quota for views and clicks.
Alright, I’ll bite. So, whose fault is it anyway? Which one of these two top-tier drivers is the one that ruined the other’s day? Who takes blame and who quells the uproar from the rabid fan base that is out for blood? Well, brace yourselves ladies and gentlemen; I have the answer you seek. After carefully studying the video from all available angles, it’s very clear to anyone to see that, wait for it… it is no one’s fault.
Surprised? Well, you shouldn’t be. There is a reason we call an accident an accident. However, in this day and age of the internet with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and more, everyone has a platform to voice their personal opinions and viewpoints on any given number of topics. This drastic shift in the way fans participate in the sport has given rise to both amazing opportunities and unprecedented access to the sport we love, but it is also a double-edged sword. All too often the freedom the internet gives fans is abused.
In the aftermath of the incident that happened on track, while I was providing live twitter updates of the race, I saw my timeline explode with tweets. Before my eyes, I saw the first, unfiltered, raw reactions from the fans of both drivers. Before the video replay was shown, before the professionals in the booth even had time to speak and give their informed insight into the incident, there were people ready to tar and feather either driver for what they perceived as a race ruining fault.
Now, I’ve taken the time this week to let the hostility settle down a bit. At least, I thought I had until the stories began to appear on every news outlet that has anything to do with NASCAR. Heck, even the front page of NASCAR.com had a massive post about this accident, complete with a hastily put together set of quotes from both drivers that seemed to scream, “Look here, race fans, we have drama!”
Everyone wants to blame everyone else for what has happened without a shred of common sense and without anything being placed into context as to what actually happened. All we know is this; two drivers, racing side-by-side late in the race, made contact. One driver spun and had to retire from the race and the other driver continued on to finish.
Yes, yes, I can hear you now saying, “But Tony cussed Jr. on the radio and threw his helmet in his hauler, and he must be blaming Jr!” Okay, so, I’ll give you that. Stewart did, in fact, say, “F—ing Dale Jr.,” on his radio after the incident. Most drivers would identify the car they hit or hit them. It is very possible that Stewart’s response was simply because he knew that the contact or wrecking Earnhardt will make your life miserable. Don’t believe me? Just ask Kyle Busch.
So yes, he said that, three little words. Does that place blame on Earnhardt for the accident? I don’t think so. You know why? It’s simple; because it was an accident. What seems to be lost on the fans right now and as of late is that sometimes, there isn’t direct fault. Sometimes, there is just a set of unfortunate circumstances that create an incident. I firmly believe this was one of them. Here’s why.
When reviewing the tape, from the turn two camera angle, it’s unclear as to what caused the contact between the two cars. The reason is forced perspective. You’re viewing from a vantage point that is nearly 500 feet away, the same theory that applies if you hold up your thumb to the sun. Your thumb can now block out the sun. That’s forced perspective. Luckily, we have multiple camera angles from which to view the race. The most interesting of which was the on-board camera from the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin. Hamlin’s car was directly behind the 14 of Stewart and the 88 of Earnhardt. What Hamlin’s camera shows is that Earnhardt made an aggressive move to clear the slower No. 51 car on the track and was put three-wide by Stewart on the bottom. Now, I want to remind everyone that Earnhardt said in his post race interview that, “I was trying to clear the No. 51 on the outside of me, so I was as high as I could go. So, you’ll just have to ask him.” Watch the videos below and judge for yourself.
That is key here, fans. Earnhardt was trying to clear the car on his outside. I want everyone to remember that races are played out in hundredths of a second. Driver’s and spotters have to make split second decisions all the time. This is where it get’s interesting. It’s late in the race and everyone is fighting for every spot they can get, every inch of ground on a late race restart, to get every position available. Earnhardt was three wide in turn four, trying to clear the car above him.
On the camera of the 11 car, it shows that Earnhardt cleared the 51 before he exited turn 4 onto the straightaway, but still stayed about half a groove down on the track. However, Earnhardt seemed to believe he was still on his outside at the time of the contact; those are his words. So, was Earnhardt still giving the 51 room on the outside? Most likely, he was. Why would he risk pinching another car on the outside of him and getting turned into the wall? Split second choices here, people.
Meanwhile, you have Stewart below Earnhardt. The 14 car was hanging on the left rear quarter panel of the 88. Why? Well, that’s twofold in racing. Even with Richmond being a short track, those cars are travelling well over 120 mph at times. That doesn’t seem like a lot when you compare it to Michigan or California where cars routinely reach 200 plus mph, but it’s still significant, significant enough that aero comes into play at this track. So it stands to reason that if you can get any advantage you can, you’ll take it. Hang on the left rear quarter panel and get a minor draft in this case.
There is also a second reason you would place your car in that spot and that’s so you can hold position on the other car. At Richmond this weekend, it was hard to pass. We saw it all day. Cars and drivers struggled to pass each other because the outside of the track just didn’t have the grip and speed that the drivers needed. Therefore, the 14 car hung on the 88 to hold his position on the inside for the next corner. No harm, no foul here. Two guys, racing hard, late in the race for every spot they can get. Right? Well, then the accident happened. The 88 car and the 14 car made contact and the entire twitterverse and internet world instantly took up arms in a virtual fight over who is right, who is wrong and who was at fault.
Guess what? The only people that know are Stewart and Earnhardt. End of discussion. We can sit here and analyze what happened and we can toss insults, make accusations and defame drivers. Heck, some of the communities of fans were so asinine that they brought up a tragedy from last year in some pathetic attempt at justification for their anger. That’s disgusting. It’s wrong. You’re free to have an opinion and you’re free to support your favorite driver through thick and thin. However, sometimes, it’s best to just call a spade a spade and leave it at that.
What happened at Richmond this weekend between Earnhardt and Stewart was simply hard racing and an accident. Stewart declined comment for a reason and Earnhardt said his piece on TV. That’s the end of it. So many times in the last 25 years, I’ve heard people say, “NASCAR fans are the greatest fans in all of sports.”
Maybe it’s time we started acting like it.