Monday, October 13, 2014

Meanwhile, in NASCAR ...

To begin with: Yes, they're still racing.

You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because NASCAR tends to vanish from the national radar just about the time the NFL revs up, never to be seen or heard from again until it's February and time to go to Daytona. But out of sight and mind or not, they're in the middle of their playoffs right now, and it's all going swimmingly.

To update: Four drivers have already been eliminated under the new Chase system, which operates more like a true playoff system and seems to finally be the solution NASCAR has been looking for since it introduced the Chase a decade ago.

I say this because four more drivers will be eliminated next week, and that led to some raw emotion Saturday night in Charlotte. Kevin Harvick, the Blob's pick to win the whole deal, won easily, but the real story was back behind him. Matt Kenseth all but tackled Brad Keselowski between a couple of haulers after Keselowski rammed him in the pits after the race was over and Kenseth had shut down his ride and unhooked himself.

While that was going on, Denny Hamlin had to be restrained from going after Keselowski, too.

Nothing came of either incident, of course -- NASCAR brawls tend to mimic baseball brawls, in that no one ever seems to land a serious blow --  but it was lost on no one that Keselowski and Kenseth are both fighting desperately to avoid elimination. And so the general impression is this is the kind of tension NASCAR hoped to create with its new format.

And that raises an interesting dilemma for NASCAR czars Brian France and Mike Helton.

Which is: How to harken back to the wild-and-woolly days that made NASCAR so hugely successful, while at the same time being confronted this summer with the awful cost all that wild-and-woolliness can extract?

Flaring tempers, after all, got a driver killed in upstate New York, and while it didn't happen in a NASCAR race, NASCAR was compelled to address it because one of its biggest commodities, Tony Stewart, is the guy who was responsible for killing Kevin Ward Jr. Afterward  there was a lot of hand-wringing among the suits about things getting out of hand on the racetracks of America, which prompted NASCAR to decree that no driver could leave his car until safety personnel showed up.

Of course, then came Saturday night, when flaring tempers briefly put NASCAR on the radar again. And so the takeaway was that, while NASCAR has said all the right things about cutting down on track mayhem, track mayhem is good for business.

It's a hell of a petard on which to be hoisted, but there's no real avoiding it. That was as clearly evident Saturday night as the fact that Keselowski is, at bottom, a restaurant-quality punk.

And, of course, a star in the NASCAR firmament because of it.  


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