As the Chase for the Championship heats up, sparks continue to fly on the race track with aggressive driving and questionable tactics.
Events began to escalate two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway Joey Logano bumped race leader Matt Kenseth spinning him out of the way to claim the win, an incident that directly contributed to Kenseth’s elimination from the Chase. Logano deemed it “good, hard racing,” and insisted that he didn’t intentionally wreck Kenseth.
Kenseth had a different point of view and said that he was “really disappointed,” in Logano’s actions on the track, adding “That’s not the way I race people no matter what the stakes are.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France discussed the contact between the two drivers on SiriusXM Radio’s NASCAR channel the following Monday.
“That’s quintessential NASCAR,” France said. He went on to explain his position stating, “Late in the race, I think that’s a great example of everybody doing probably exactly what they should be doing. You had Matt Kenseth trying to block and hold his position. He had a faster car behind him, and when you block, you risk that somebody is going to be in that position and there was contact.”
France went on to say that Logano “made a very smart decision in what he did because not only did he try to win the race, which he said he wanted to do and obviously he did, but the idea to, late in that race, to have an opportunity to put one of the top teams on the outside looking into the next round in Matt Kenseth, (who) has run so well, that’s a smart thing to do.”
“You have to give them a lot of credit,” Franc continued. “This is the strategy that we all thought was going to be different when you have this kind of format. But it does reward aggressive racing at the end of the day.”
The message seems clear; aggressive driving is not only expected but encouraged in the Chase format. It also begs the question of where is the line drawn?
Last week at Talladega Superspeedway, controversy arose again when it appeared that Kevin Harvick intentionally caused a wreck at the end of the race to freeze the field and lock in his points, ensuring his inclusion into the next round of the Chase.
Harvick denied the allegations and after a review of the race, NASCAR stated that they had “completed the review of any other potential penalties from the track (Talladega) this past weekend and there will be no further actions.”
NASCAR’s decision and Harvick’s assertion of innocence were met with skepticism by many after viewing video footage from his in-car camera that show him turn his steering wheel to the right as he clips driver Trevor Bayne’s car, causing the accident. Harvick, who had a failing engine, maintains that he did not see Bayne and was attempting to get out of the way.
Again, the message seems clear as drivers do what they must, to compete for wins and the championship with no repercussions from NASCAR. But Kenseth may have crossed the line Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Kenseth was competitive at the short track Sunday, but his day turned sour after he sustained significant damage to his car after contact with Brad Keselowski on Lap 434. Twenty laps later, Logano’s day effectively ended when Kenseth hit Logano, turning him into the wall. Logano ended the race in 37th place and is now in eighth place in the Chase, 28 points behind the leader. NASCAR parked Kenseth for the remainder of the race.
While he didn’t admit to purposely wrecking Logano, Kenseth’s comments imply that he felt it was important for him to respond to the events of the last few races.
“You never like to be in these situations,” Kenseth said. “They really stink, to be honest with you, but sometimes you get put in these spots, and you’ve got to try to keep respect in the garage area. You can’t get yourself ran over.
“You can’t get in the Chase next year and get ran over for the same reason. Like I said, hate the way it ended. Wish we were out there celebrating or having a shot for the win like we did before we got wrecked, so a disappointing day.”
Did Logano intend to wreck Kenseth at Kansas or simply move him out of the way? Logano is the only one who can answer that question. Harvick’s actions at Talladega may seem questionable, but it is difficult to ascertain his motives with any certainty. If you consider the first two instances, should Kenseth also get the benefit of the doubt for the contact with Logano at Martinsville?
After listening to executive vice president Steve O’Donnell’s comments after the race, it is likely that Kenseth may face penalties from NASCAR.
“I think in the case with Matt,“ O’Donnell said, “we were certainly disappointed with what took place tonight on the racetrack. We had a conversation with both Matt, crew chief, Joe Gibbs. Like we always do, there’s still a lot to digest from what happened tonight. We’ll do that. We’ll have some additional conversations and probably come out with something, if there is anything to discuss, on Tuesday”.
Whether you believe the wreck was intentional or not, there is no definitive proof to back up either claim or to establish intent. But Kenseth, who is no longer in contention for the Chase, may have committed the one mistake that NASCAR won’t ignore; taking out someone contending for the championship. If NASCAR penalizes Kenseth, are they establishing two sets of rules – one for Chasers and one for non-Chasers? Or were Kenseth’s actions simply too blatant to ignore?
Given the atmosphere of aggressiveness that NASCAR has fostered, Kenseth may have felt he had no choice but to respond in kind.