Barely a month into a new season, NASCAR is doing what it has always done best.
Getting its personalities out of the car.
And into each other’s faces.
Tony Stewart tried to go for Joey Logano’s throat last week, mad because Logano blocked him on a restart.
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The week before, it was Logano who was mad — but with another driver. He squeezed through the window to try to chew at Denny Hamlin after the Bristol race, continuing a fight that started on Twitter at Daytona.
And Clint Bowyer isn’t letting go of a feud with Jeff Gordon that started earlier than that — in the second-to-last race last year.
That’s only three of the storylines so far in the young Sprint Cup season, which is off today for Easter but continues next weekend in Martinsville, Va., and then comes to Texas Motor Speedway for the NRA 500.
There are other storylines — the new “Gen-6” car, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s place at the top of the point standings, the Daytona 500 pole by Danica Patrick, the resurgence of Kurt Busch, the drive for a sixth championship by Jimmie Johnson.
But nothing says NASCAR like driver fights, and it all seems right somehow. No one was penalized or fined for the extracurricular activity last week, on- or off-track.
“That’s part of racing sometimes,” said last week’s winner, Kyle Busch, who took advantage of Logano and Hamlin wrecking each other on the final lap. “That’s what this sport was built on. Just ask Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.”
Viewers know that.
NASCAR’s ratings on Fox have been better than last year for four of the five races. In Dallas-Fort Worth, TMS general manager Eddie Gossage said ratings for the Bristol race increased 73 percent last week despite competition from the NCAA Selection Show.
“NASCAR is enjoying similar explosive growth nationally,” he said in an email. “Twenty-two markets saw a ratings increase of 30 percent or more last Sunday.”
NASCAR was off to a great start TV-wise, anyway, when Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500 in February and then rode it to an eighth-place finish.
But despite her sink in the driver standings — she’s now 29th — and the reported use of a racial slur by driver Jeremy Clements at Daytona, NASCAR did not lose momentum. It no doubt helped that Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the series, immediately and clearly denounced the slur.
“I don’t like it. There’s no room for that in my life,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When one person’s mistake looks bad on the sport, it’s unfortunate.”
Even with Patrick fading, other personalities emerged or re-emerged to take her place in the spotlight. Stewart ripped into the “rich-kid” Logano. Carl Edwards won again after a terrible 2012. Kurt Busch, working his way back after a year’s penance with an underfunded team, has given mid-level Furniture Row Racing top-10s in the past two races.
And his brother Kyle Busch, after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup “playoffs” last year, is sixth in the point standings.
“I did win the race today, by the way,” he joked to reporters, who kept asking him questions about Logano and Hamlin after last week’s win. “So that might be a story.”
Actually, Hamlin became the story last week when it was learned he would have to miss five races because of a compression fracture in his back. That will make it very difficult, but not impossible, for one of the championship contenders to make the Chase.
But it’s just another branch off one of the many storylines Sprint Cup has already developed.