Is more 'have at it' on the way?

7/16/2010 - NASCAR
Things ended up being cool between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski after Edwards spun keselowski out at Atlanta. Courtesy of HHP Images

Having "had at it" for half a season plus one race, the "boys" can now take their pre-Indy break to contemplate their liberation -- and the amazing fact that it has been upheld consistently by NASCAR.

The state of the "have at it, boys" doctrine is good. Left to police themselves, they've done it well.

Need proof? Think about it: Brad Keselowski has been pretty well-behaved on the racetracks since the second week of March.

Starting the season as the roughest driver since Dale Earnhardt arrived in Cup, Keselowski needed straightening out and settling down, by consensus of his peers.

It was Carl Edwards who gave him the kick in the butt (of his race car) that launched Brad K onto network newscasts and into a new attitude.

So violent was the airborne crash that it drew cries from the uninitiated that Edwards should be severely penalized. But no real harm, no real foul. NASCAR wrist-slapped Edwards with probation, and that was that.

That's when you knew this was going to work.

You knew NASCAR really meant it when competition vice president Robin Pemberton said "have at it, boys" before the season started. NASCAR was going to sustain it.

Frontier justice? Damn right it is.

But it is the natural law of NASCAR racing. It is much of NASCAR's charm, much of what made it popular in the first place.

The trouble started when NASCAR officials tried harder and harder to restrain naturally occurring phenomena such as a Bobby Allison stuffing a young Darrell Waltrip to ease some arrogance, or a Geoff Bodine showing Earnhardt he wasn't the only one with a bumper.

NASCAR chairman Brian France admits now that his regime, and those of his predecessors, had laid down too many laws.

"This is a 60-year-plus sport; things evolve over time," France said during his annual midseason press conference at Daytona earlier this month. "You just sort of keep dialing it down, and down, and down. All of a sudden you look up, you've taken yourself slightly off course."

Well, a little more than "slightly." NASCAR -- with a lot of help from misguided corporate sponsors who think squeaky-clean is good -- had bled an awful lot of color out of drivers' personalities.

Now that personalities have reawakened, now that postrace interviews are rife with who they're going to "get" next week, or "what's coming to me," NASCAR seems downright relieved not to be about the business of those midweek fines, probations and points penalties.

France seems comfortable with his own version of glasnost, or openness.

"I like it, personally," he said. "I like the emotion. You know, [they're] a little less worried about what we're going to do."

But he added, "They always have the sponsorship stuff" -- that is, the pressure to behave for the sake of sponsors' images.

That's probably the primary reason why, for example, Martin Truex Jr. has yet to follow through on his twice-stated vow to "get" Jeff Gordon for spinning him out at Sonoma in June.

But from the NASCAR enforcement side, when you think about it, "have at it" was the only way to go, given other rule changes -- mainly double-file restarts and multiple green-white-checkered finishes.

Such is the violence and anger generated by these newly instituted scrambles that without some laissez-faire on the part of NASCAR, they'd be dishing fines and docking points every week -- and drawing the inevitable criticism for affecting championships.

"Honestly, at the end of these races, with double-file restarts and five laps to go, or green-white checkered, it is literally bumper cars at 190 mph," Gordon said. "I don't know any other way to put it."

Denny Hamlin, for one, fears that the relentless slam-banging is having a bad effect on the mood of the garage. But, under the broad umbrella of "have at it," Hamlin is allowed to say what he thinks.

Which is: "Everyone is driving so aggressive that friendships in [the] garage area are few and far between right now. … Even when you try to drive conservative on these restarts nowadays, week in and week out, you can't help but get in the middle of some kind of mess, because it's all around you."

There's simply no way the craziness of the double-file restarts, especially in combination with green-white checkered, could be policed from the tower -- unless NASCAR wants to start backing paddy wagons up to the motor coach compound after every race.

Jeff Gordon Honestly, at the end of these races, with double-file restarts and five laps to go, or green-white-checkered, it is literally bumper cars at 190 mph. I don't know any other way to put it.

-- Jeff Gordon

Besides, as Jeff Burton sees it, "Some of it is lack of respect. Some of it is just plain and simple hard racing. It is hard to distinguish the two."

If Hamlin is right that feelings are festering, then there is the potential for "have at it" to escalate.

So far, Edwards' punt of Keselowski is the only definitive payback to come from the drivers' settling of matters among themselves. Otherwise, there's been only angry talk with little or no retributive action.

That could change during the second half of the season. During this pre-Indy lull, the boys may be absorbing, consciously or unconsciously, just how much margin they've been allowed, compared to the tightly regulated recent past.

If they decide -- again, consciously or unconsciously -- to test their new freedom at higher and hotter levels, then payback from one green-white-checkered finish to the next might become standard. No, they're not going to risk a chance to win just to wreck a guy … but if one does have a chance and the other doesn't, then the guy with a chance to win could be vulnerable to retribution.

And after all, the landmark case of Edwards vs. Keselowski provides precedent for NASCAR to tolerate their turning talk into action.

If the sponsors are the last line of resistance to the full return of frontier justice, that may not be much of a line. To take Burton's point one step further, how is a corporate marketing type, so naive as to think squeaky-clean is good, going to be savvy enough to distinguish payback from hard racing?

Something just tells me that "have at it, boys" is in only its formative stages.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.