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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Using the fender

by Gordon Kirby
I chuckled when I saw the headline in USA Today last week after Matt Kenseth ran Joey Logano into the wall at Martinsville. 'Real sport or circus sideshow?' asked the headline on the newspaper's story about the incident.

As we all know, the 'circus sideshow' element has been part of NASCAR for many years, since its birth in fact. Using the fender to win a race or as a grievance in retaliation for earlier perceived wrongs are essential components of stock car racing and will remain so forever more.

And of course, NASCAR uses fast-cut shots of crashes, multi-car accidents and fist-shaking drivers to promote its races. Some like to profess that NASCAR has moved into a more sophisticated, more modern environment but crashes, collisions and scuffles remain the bread and butter of NASCAR's promotional image amid an increasingly desperate pursuit of a turnaround in the longterm decline of TV ratings and crowds.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the problems NASCAR faces. Also, in a July column titled 'Not exactly Dan Gurney at the Nurburgring' I discussed how the image of multi-car NASCAR wrecks has become the definition of motor racing in America in contrast to the sublime skills of a man like Gurney racing his own Formula 1 car at a track like the original 'Ring.

In my view the sport has been dramatically devalued over the years as all the sanctioning bodies have moved towards copying NASCAR's model embracing an eternal pursuit for ever 'closer, more competitive' racing. In company with this mantra they've thoroughly adopted the spec car mentality which has drained the sport of its essential lifeblood and seriously damaged the American racing industry. I think the equation is pretty clear and many people with considerable experience and a achievements in motor racing agree.

But nobody in the sport's halls of power are listening to a word any of us have to say. They remain deeply committed to the paths they're on and come hell or high water they're going to keep plodding down the same trail, entirely incapable it seems of revolutionizing a worn-out product.

Despite the bad blood at Martinsville, the race drew only a 1.9 TV rating on NBCSports, down 17 percent from last year on ESPN. Ratings have declined for all 19 Sprint Cup races on cable this year. But NASCAR's poor numbers from Martinsville on NBCSN easily topped Formula 1's dismal 0.6 rating from Mexico City the same afternoon on NBC's primary free to air network.

At the end of last week NASCAR denied Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing's appeal of his two-race suspension. Meanwhile, Kenseth's heavy-handed move on Logano was largely applauded by his fellow drivers and by the fans at Martinsville who gave him as many cheers as the boos and beer cans that rained down on Logano after he won under the yellow the previous weekend at Talladega. Incredibly, Kenseth is the first driver in NASCAR history to be suspended for crashing another driver.

Of course, the grand master of using the fender was 'The Intimidator', Dale Earnhardt. Over the years Earnhardt crashed many people, always with a deft touch. He played the odds and won many times. He raised the ire of plenty of drivers and even more fans, emerging as the man people loved to hate.

I well remember Earnhardt using his fender to good effect in a couple of IROC races at Daytona twenty or so years ago and on both occasions he got away scot-free and won the race.

The first of these occurred during a period of time when Al Unser Jr. dominated the IROC series, winning on ovals and road courses. Unser confounded Earnhardt and NASCAR's top stars by consistently beating them at Daytona. In one such race Al Jr. appeared to play the game perfectly, going to the front in the closing laps and pulling clear of the pack as they started the final lap.

© Paul Webb
But Earnhardt was running second and he had other ideas. Timing it perfectly, he was able to catch Unser at the end of the backstretch and had enough steam to give Al's tail a solid clout as they turned into the banking. The move knocked Unser's car sky high and it went over the fence and out of the ballpark.

For a few minutes we feared for Al's health before he walked away from the wreckage shaken but unhurt while Earnhardt went on to win the race. It was a salubrious lesson for Unser and I'll always remember Earnhardt's great rival and sometimes pal Rusty Wallace scowling about the incident.

"Now you know why we all hate him," Wallace barked as he walked by.

In fact, Earnhardt was despised as much as he was loved. Today, the myth is that everyone admired and respected him, but that's hardly the truth of the matter. Sure, he loved to hunt and fish and joke with his fellow drivers, but he was as tough and hard-edged as they come.

In 1993 Al Jr. ran the Daytona 500 in a fourth Hendrick car. He qualified near the back of the field but methodically worked his way toward the front helped by some smart pit strategy. With twenty laps to go Unser was running fifth with a shot at winning the race. But Earnhardt was right behind him and looking like he was going to have to make a late race stop, negating his hopes of winning.

Watching the race from atop the press box it appeared that Earnhardt decided if he wasn't going to win he wasn't about to allow this upstart Indy car driver to win the big race. So as they hammered through Daytona's tri-oval section, right in front of the packed grandstands, Earnhardt gave Unser another thumping, knocking him out of the race. I'll never forget hours later Big Al sat in his son's motorhome still absolutely fuming.

"That Earnhardt!" Al Sr. growled. "I thought he was a good guy, but that move he put on Al was BS. He's an [expletive deleted]!"

Moving on a few years later to another IROC race at Daytona. It must have been 1998 because it was CART's new champion Alex Zanardi's first taste of IROC or stock car racing. Zanardi adapted quickly and was able to run well in the race drafting with the leaders.

But about midway through the race Zanardi found himself knocked out of line by another car and was never able to get back into the hunt for the lead. He finished in a respectable position but was disappointed not to have done better.

In the pits immediately after race Zanardi stood around with some of the other IROC drivers debriefing about his first experience of drafting at Daytona. Suddenly, race winner Earnhardt strode onto the scene, grinning widely.

"Hey Zanardi!" he drawled. "What happened to you? You were runnin' good. Then somebody must've got into you. Too bad, man! Better luck next time."

Zanardi smiled and commiserated briefly with Earnhardt before 'The Intimidator' was on his way. An hour or so later I bumped into Zanardi who had just seen the video of the race. He wasn't happy.

"I watched the video and it was Earnhardt who hit me!" Zanardi exclaimed. "He knew exactly what he was doing and then he pretends that somebody else hit me. Well, I guess I know how he plays the game now."

In today's ever closer, more competitive environment skillfully using the fender is more important than ever. If nothing else, as Dale Jr. said last week, Kenseth has sent a very clear message not to mess with him. On the other hand, Logano and to a slightly lesser degree his teammate Brad Keselowski are the most marked men on the track.

Many of NASCAR's star drivers complain that NASCAR lacks clarity and consistency in enforcing driver conduct rules and most fans and media agree. Kenseth blatantly tested the officials at Martinsville just as Earnhardt did at Daytona twenty years ago. And years from now some future stars of NASCAR surely will play the same game many times over yet again.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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