NASCAR created its new Chase format to create drama and intensity down the stretch.
And that’s what it’s delivered so far.
Just look at the attention generated by the post-race fight between Chase contenders Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski following Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
It’s been discussed on national TV and radio shows, and is surely going to remain the No. 1 topic among race fans going into Sunday’s race at Phoenix.
But is this a good thing for the sport?
Instead of talking about Jimmie Johnson winning the fall race at TMS for the third consecutive year and playing spoiler in this year’s Chase, the only thing people seem to care about is the full-fledged brawl that broke out between Keselowski, Gordon and their teams.
TMS president Eddie Gossage understands why, of course, but acknowledged the sport is walking a fine line between real and manufactured emotions. It marked the second time in four weeks that a post-race altercation overshadowed the actual race.
Keselowski, unsurprisingly, was involved in both. His aggressive, borderline reckless driving style rubs veteran drivers the wrong way and leads to tussles. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth each wanted to pummel Keselowski after the Charlotte race last month, and now it’s Gordon, the most recognizable name remaining in the Chase.
“There’s some good in stuff like this, but you can’t do it every week,” Gossage said. “From a credibility standpoint, you just can’t do that every week. But tensions are so high, the nerves are so raw and the stakes are so huge that anytime you apply pressure, you get a pushback and response. That’s what we’re seeing because the Chase is putting pressure on people who haven’t experienced this kind in our sport before.
“What happened last night is one of those things that happen when those emotions boil up to the surface. Certainly last night was real. When you’re drawing blood, that’s real stuff and each driver had swollen noses, black eyes, swollen lips. But if you do it every week, it doesn’t appear realistic.”
With nine laps remaining, all signs pointed to Gordon cruising to Victory Lane and securing one of four berths in the championship round. Keselowski, meanwhile, was in desperation mode, as he essentially needs a win in order to advance.
That’s why Keselowski made the overly aggressive inside move between Gordon and Johnson with a couple laps remaining, a decision that cut Gordon’s left rear tire and sent him to the back of the pack.
After the race and fight, Keselowski didn’t back down and his team owner, Roger Penske, issued a statement Monday with his unwavering support for his driver. Keselowski referenced legendary drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt as people who inspired him and would have approved of his style.
The big difference, however, is that Senna and Earnhardt were beloved drivers by the end of their careers. Keselowski is far from that. When he was shown on the TMS video board, fans showered him heavily with boos.
“I don’t necessarily enjoy being disliked, but it beats the alternative of not being known at all by a long ways,” Keselowski said.
Is Keselowski driving like a wild man on the track a good thing? Should post-race fights be the storyline instead of the race winners? Is the new Chase format working even though two non-Chase contenders have won the past two races?
“Well, I don’t know that we’re looking for fights and I think NASCAR is sometimes unfairly labeled as, ‘Look at those rednecks going at it,’ ” Gossage said. “But I guess that’s too much to ask for anyway.
“A lot happened last night. Maybe too much happened and there’s a news overload. You’ve got Jimmie being the spoiler and winning his third straight AAA Texas 500. You’ve got the Chase standings being turned all upside down. And then you’ve got the fight. Let’s just say it was an eventful night.”