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Monday, May 9, 2011

NASCAR, media should stick to racing not driver behavior

Juan Pablo MontoyaImage by chrisjbarker via FlickrNASCAR's pre-race and post-race coverage seemed to trump the race itself.

Without taking anything away from the superb conclusion of Saturday night's race at Darlington, where Regan Smith kept a hard-charging Carl Edwards in his rear view mirror, it was clear that NASCAR's "boys have at it" mentality clearly trumped racing prowess by the entertainment factor. 

Perhaps that is what Tony Stewart meant years ago when he said NASCAR was becoming more like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.)

What a sad sign of the times!

Racing should be about racing, winning, track performance, speed, all those things. It should be about racing.

Instead, what we had was a week jam packed with media coverage and speculation about a Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman feud that spilled over from Richmond the previous week. I suspect this wasn't even a feud until the media tried hard to turn it into one. What it was was a series of incidents.

Then there was the Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick melee on the track Saturday night that got the media into an all new frenzy. 

I believe we used to call that kind of speculation and instigation just being a trouble maker.

Last week at Richmond, what transpired was not a long-standing feud. Rather it was a racing incident that turned stupid, exacerbated by small-minded commentators with their own built-in biases for and against certain drivers, who tried to ignite sparks of discontent.

The incident between Newman and Montoya started when Newman tried to pass Montoya on the outside. Montoya blocked Newman, who had nowhere else to go, but either into Montoya or the wall. Apparently he tried to slow down, but still clipped Montoya's car sending Montoya hard into the wall.

Newman asked his crew to relay his apology. They did, but while Montoya's crew graciously accepted, Montoya was said to be unresponsive. Later, Montoya's spotter took responsibility for the incident, claiming that he told Montoya Newman was two car lengths back, but when he turned away for a brief instant, Newman had already made it to Montoya's bumper.

Montoya saw the incident as just one more hit inflicted by Newman, so he decided to retaliate. He wrongly thought it was an intentional move. So when he got the chance, he deliberately drove at Newman, causing Newman's car to spin. The result was a bad day for both teams.

Here is where it got ugly.

After the race, Newman followed NASCAR directives by going to them first before taking matters into his own hands. If he had wanted to confront Montoya, he could have done so when he drove past him following the race.But he didn't.

Newman isn't the kind of driver to purposefully wreck race cars, so he said on the radio he would handle it after the race. Besides, he had his hands full trying to limp the wounded car around the track. Following the race, Newman wanted to let NASCAR know he was not happy that Montoya intentionally sought him out with the intent to smash into his race car.

Some media morons categorized Newman as a whiner. In reality, Newman and the other drivers had been instructed to go to NASCAR first if there is a problem. In Newman's mind, there was clearly a problem, since Montoya acted with malice after what Newman saw as a simple racing incident.

The media didn't leave the story alone. Not since Newman won the Daytona 500 in '08, has there been so much media focus on him. Montoya was on Trackside. Newman was interviewed on Race Day. Jimmy Spencer lampooned Newman on Race Hub.

Even with all the attention, both Newman and Montoya said they wanted to put the thing behind them and focus on the race at Darlington. Commentators wouldn't let that happen. In fact, it appeared that those at FOX were intentionally keeping the heat turned up high, almost as if they were trying to incite further action.

To me, NASCAR invited this behavior when they overstepped their role as a sanctioning body. Their "boys have at it" attitude is just a toned-down version of "whatever it is, we'll handle it." Their policies are so arbitrary, that it is difficult for drivers to know how to behave. Remember last year when Newman and Denny Hamlin were fined upwards of $50,000 for comments NASCAR simply didn't like.

It was wrong of NASCAR and the media to paint Newman and Montoya in a similar light. Clearly one incident was an accident and the other clear malice. Supposedly NASCAR was going to watch both drivers during the race at Darlington.

I hope they got an eyeful.

Reality showed itself clearly when Montoya roughed up five-time champion Jimmy Johnson in much the same way he did Newman the week before. Meanwhile, Newman struggling in an ill-handling race car, fought back to finish in 5th position.

With regard to the Kyle/Kevin issue--with one of them a past champion and the other a contender at nearly every race he starts--it will be interesting to see how this plays out. One thing is for sure--the Newman/Montoya incidents are finally behind us all.

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