Some thoughts on Sunday's eventful NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway...
I'm glad Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton threw down during Sunday's race and had a fight. I don't care who the drivers were or what the circumstances were - NASCAR needs that kind of publicity and highlight-reel moment to break through the crowded sports media landscape today. How many more people paid attention to horse racing's Breeders' Cup this weekend (or realized it was even taking place) as a result of Friday's fight between jockeys? Same concept applies to NASCAR.
It doesn't minimize the on-track competition to get excited about a fight; it just enhances the overall product, which is built both on selling personalities and entertaining racing. A fight wasn't the main headline from yesterday's race, it was just one of them. In an era when all the drivers live together in a motorhome lot and talk things out behind the scenes to diffuse potential rivalries, physical confrontations have been far too rare.
On the scale of sportsmanship, though, a fight between competitors is different than gesturing toward a NASCAR official. Fighting in sports is often about defending honor (hockey "enforcers," baseball pitchers following the "code" of retaliation); flipping off the ref is never a good idea in any form of competition.
Kyle Busch's middle finger toward a NASCAR official was not an act of "passion." It was the act of a poor sport. I'm tired of people offering excuses for Busch when he acts like a brat whose parents never told him, "HEY! You can't behave like that, son!"
There's a huge difference between wanting to win very badly (as Busch so obviously does) and throwing temper tantrums when you lose. Busch can still figure out a way to express how much he hates losing – and maintain that passion his fans love so much – without having the kind of meltdowns most people grow out of after high school.
That said, NASCAR absolutely should not issue any further penalties to Busch. It already penalized him on the track for two laps; typically, if such actions are taken during the race, NASCAR says "We're done with it" and moves on. However, it wouldn't surprise me if, given Busch's angry reaction after the Nationwide race on Saturday and his continued attempts to "stand up them" (in Busch's words), the sanctioning body tries to send a message with an additional fine or penalty.
As for the fight? NASCAR absolutely cannot penalize Gordon or Burton. It would be completely hypocritical to say, "Have at it, boys!" and then say, "Ha! We caught you! Now pay $25,000." If anything, NASCAR should send Gordon a bottle of wine as a thank-you gesture for the publicity.
Too often, we fall into the trap of trying to apply examples of things that happen in NASCAR to our normal lives. It's similar to saying of the Busch situation, "Well, I flip off cops on the freeway, I just don't have an in-car camera." Yes, but you also don't get paid millions of dollars and participate in a professional sport.
Being a pro athlete comes with an expectation of acting like a professional – and that's why I think Jimmie Johnson's pit crew swap won't be a huge issue for that team.
If my boss replaced me with someone else because I couldn't get the job done, I'd be furious. I might want to walk off the job. My feelings would be bruised, as would my pride. But while some of the 48 team's crew members may have felt that way initially, I fully expect the team will show up at Phoenix – if asked – and do a professional job in putting their feelings aside.
At first, I thought Chad Knaus was making a huge mistake. I reasoned: He just completely destroyed their confidence and told them they couldn't get the job done. They're ruined. But if you think about it, there's potential for the move to make the 48 crew work even harder. And that will likely have to happen for Johnson to win another championship, because my gut feeling is Rick Hendrick won't let Knaus have the 24 team's pit crew for the remainder of the season (Hendrick would view that as unfair to Gordon and his sponsors).
Still, I don't agree with Knaus making the swap in the middle of the race. It seems uncharacteristic of the 48 team to pull a "desperation move," as Denny Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford was happy to point out. If Johnson loses the championship, those who document the sport will look back and point to Texas as a key swing in momentum.
Speaking of crew chief Ford, the man had a lot to say in his post-race comments, mainly puffing his chest and declaring that his team was better than Johnson's. He also made the "desperation move" comment and said he was immune to any mind games the 48 team might play and took some shots at the competition.
That may all be true, but smack talk seems to backfire in sports so often – bulletin board material and all that – you can't help but wonder if Ford would be wiser to keep his swagger and attitude toward the four-time consecutive champions to himself and his team. At least until he's holding the trophy at Homestead.
As for the trophy, though it's feeling more and more like Hamlin's year – and less like one of those typical Johnson Cup runs – I'm still sticking with the 48 as my championship pick. Until he proves otherwise, Johnson is the man to beat. Hamlin, though, just might be the guy who ends Johnson's reign.