Lines In The Sand

What would football be without the Oakland Raiders? What would baseball be without Barry Bonds?

Recently, a bit of a cry has gone up over the increased incidence of rough driving on the Winston Cup circuit. Dale Jarrett recently expressed the view that NASCAR needs to get tough.

“We’re going to have to do something besides fines,” Jarrett said. “I’ve always looked at fines, whether it be in our sport or other sports where the athletes, teams or whatever it may be, make quite a bit of money. Even though $10,000 or $5,000 is still a lot of money, in the whole scheme of things, I don’t know if that sends the message that we’re going to have to send here. You take the chance that any time you put someone in that position of creating an accident, basically, of someone getting injured, and we don’t need to put ourselves in that position.

“We need to look at something a little more harsh. Whether that’s taking points away - that certainly takes a little more than the money - but from what I’ve seen over the past few weeks anyway, it might be time for somebody to sit out a week and realize we’re not going to put up with this. Racing and rubbing a little bit and accidents are going to happen at times, but some of the things that I’ve seen are totally uncalled for, and a message needs to be sent.”

The problem, obviously, is over whether or not the ruling body of stock-car racing wants to play God. Who makes the call? Who decisively determines what is intentional and what is a mistake? Does only the incident in question count, or should NASCAR look at a series of incidents between two drivers, as in the current feud of sorts between Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace?

Is there a pattern of one driver repeatedly being guilty, or does it all even out in the long run?

Jarrett lost ground late in last weekend’s race at Dover when his Ford spun out after a tap from Tony Stewart’s Pontiac? Earlier in the season, Stewart lost a bunch of positions on the last lap at Bristol when his car spun out after contact from Jeff Gordon. Gordon took a points hit at Bristol after his Chevy lost an early encounter with Sterling Marlin’s Dodge.

One aspect of the situation is that fans and other observers habitually blame the car that is in back, and that may be the most oft-made mistake in the entire sport. Perhaps we tend to apply the rules of the public highway to the race track. On the highway, the guy behind is always at fault, but race cars are going much faster and generally run much closer to each other. As an example, witness Stewart’s defense of his confrontation with Jarrett at Dover.

“Anybody who watched saw that he (Jarrett) had been going in on the bottom, sliding halfway up the race track, and then when I’d get a run through the center, he’d cut down. He’s just doing it to protect his spot,” said Stewart, “but he’s got to understand that he’s putting himself in a bad position when he does that because if I get a bigger run than he thinks - three times I had to slam on the brakes to keep him from hitting the right front of my car – it’s just a bad deal.

“He (Jarrett) is not a guy that I ever want to turn. I don’t want to turn anybody. I’m so tired of controversy; I don’t need any of this. I really like Dale Jarrett. He’s a good guy, and he’s been a good friend to me this year. He is one of the last guys I would have liked to have seen that happen to.”

Of course, it did. In fact, in last Sunday’s race alone, one crash after another occurred when one car bumped another on Dover Downs’ treacherous concrete. Stewart bumped Jarrett. Wallace bumped Rudd. Gordon bumped Ron Hornaday. Bill Elliott bumped Bobby Labonte. The race winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., bumped Ricky Craven, although Craven, somewhat miraculously, managed to wrest his Ford back under control.

Sometimes the driver in the back grows weary of having his car blocked by a slower car and finally just “punts” the car in front. Sometimes, though, when the cars are racing inches apart, the car in front “lifts” because, for one reason or another, it loses traction.

Who makes that call? Who really knows what happens inside the cars? What constitutes the circumstances in which NASCAR should intervene, either with a “penalty box” call, a fine or disciplinary action?

Some would say that this takes care of itself. If a driver “plays with fire” enough, eventually he gets burned. Or does he? Do these guys need to be protected from one another? Or are they big enough – or talented enough – to take care of themselves?

The fans are obviously somewhat split on this issue, too.

Obviously, some fans believe only clean racers should be allowed on the track. Many other fans prefer a bit of rogue in their favorites. They want to see a bit of “rubbing” out on the track. One of the appealing characteristics in the sport is the never-ending debate over whether one driver or another is “clean,” “dirty,” “rough,” or merely “aggressive”? One fan’s “dirty” is another fan’s “clean.” One’s “rough” is another’s “aggressive.”

But doesn’t that debate fuel NASCAR’s popularity? Doesn’t the same debate essentially enliven the interactions of baseball, football, basketball and hockey fans when discussions of their favorite teams occur?

It’s funny how many drivers nowadays don’t want to discuss the topic of “rivalries” with other drivers. Rivalries are as important to racing as they are to other sports.

Suppose you’re a Rudd fan or a Wallace fan? Have the incidents at Richmond and Dover left you angry or frustrated? Probably so. Have they made you less likely to watch or attend this week’s race in Kansas City? Probably not.

Sure, NASCAR has a role in keeping tempers from getting out of control. It’s a dangerous sport. That line is a tough one to draw, however.

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