Monday, November 3, 2014

The old brawl game

I know how they should wrap this deal up in two weeks. And it doesn't involve guys flying around at 180 mph trying to turn one another into scrap metal.

Forget that. Forget the cars, the race track, everything we've come to love about NASCAR, except for maybe the beer.

The beer can stay.

Oh, and this prizefight ring.

Oh, and this giant metal cage to fit over it.

Oh, and a handful of folding chairs, plus a set of brass knuckles Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon or Matt Kenseth can pull out of their tights if Brad Keselowski gets out of line again.

WrestleMania: The NASCAR Years, that's what we're headed for here. For the second time in three weeks, a postrace brawl broke out in the pits Sunday, cutting Gordon's lip and leaving Keselowski with blood on his mouth. And now NASCAR's got to decide whether to bring down the hammer (and the curtain on WrestleMania) or let its elimination-round Chase play on out to what will inevitably be utter craziness in the last winner-take-all race at Homestead.

Here's what I think: I think NASCAR's got to send a message, but not too strident a message.

That's because it's riding a razor's edge here, and it can't afford to fall off on either side. Let the mayhem continue unabated, and two things will happen: Someone's gonna get killed, and what a big chunk of America already thinks is hillbilly vaudeville will be exposed as hillbilly vaudeville in fact. Go draconian on the punishment, and you'll lose your audience, because if the brawling has done one thing for NASCAR, it's gotten it out from under the NFL's encompassing shadow, if only briefly.

NASCAR czars Brian France and Mike Helton can't be pleased that the only time their sport shows up on the national radar is when the drivers and crews are having cuss and/or fist fights. On the other hand, at least their sport's showing up on the national radar. So it's a deft hand on the tiller that's required here, and maybe an impossibly deft hand.

As to the latest round of cuss-and-fist-throwin', it started with Gordon merely jawing at Keselowski, who shot the gap going for the lead in the final laps, got into Gordon and caused a tire to go down that took Gordon out of contention. Then Harvick appeared out of nowhere to shove Kes from behind, and after that your basic melee ensued.

And here's the thing: Gordon didn't have much of a beef.

Oh, Keselowski is still Mr. Restaurant-Quality Punk, but this time he's largely blameless. If you watch the video, all he's doing is what race drivers have done since the beginning of time: Trying to squeeze through a hole with the race on the line. He didn't quite make it, but the hole is definitely there.

And Gordon's hardly the one to call him on it. I seem to remember him making an even riskier move to win the 1999 Daytona 500, diving all the way down on the apron to go around Rusty Wallace,  nearly rear-ending Ricky Rudd in the process.

Check out that move, at the 10-second mark. Now check out Keselowski's. You tell me who was being more reckless.

And as for the Chase?

You tell me who's gonna win now. I've got no clue.

And that, on a weekend of mixed messages, definitely goes in the plus column for NASCAR.

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