Kyle's gesture an All-American move
This is about digital communication -- mankind's oldest yet still most direct form.
It is instantaneous, no computers involved, not so much as a keystroke.
It is especially common among drivers of automobiles, from freeways to racetracks. Safe to say it is being used somewhere in traffic as we speak.
Early in Kurt Busch's first Daytona 500 in 2001, he felt a thump -- broadside-to-broadside contact with his car by another. As the other driver disengaged and drove away, Busch could see who it was: Dale Earnhardt, his right middle finger aloft as he motored on.
Right into the day he died, NASCAR's most iconic driver used this digital communication to welcome a rookie in his hard-nosed way.
From what Danica Patrick's father, T.J., told me a couple of years ago -- that she was prone to "flipping people off" in street traffic -- she might run into unforeseen snags in NASCAR.
Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties might eventually hamper her, if the "Latest Strange Case of Kyle Busch" is to be a guideline in the NASCAR courts.
This week, Rowdy was fined $25,000. This on top of being penalized two laps for "unsportsmanlike conduct" Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. This was for delivering what NASCAR called generically an "obscene gesture" to a NASCAR official while Busch was being held in the pits for a speeding violation.
They got him under good old Section 12-1 of the NASCAR rulebook, "actions detrimental to stock car racing." That vast rule covers everything from illegal intake manifolds to the way you configure your hands and fingers while you sit in the pits during a speeding penalty.
Busch then issued a statement of apology, explaining that "it's pretty obvious to everyone that I wear my emotions on my sleeve." If he'd kept them there, he'd have been fine, but he let his emotions get down to his gloves to the very tips of the longest fingers.
The only precedent for what we'll call "flipoff issues" in NASCAR was in 2005, when Michael Waltrip was initially fined $10,000 and docked 35 points for raising a singular finger in the direction of Robby Gordon in the aftermath of a wreck.
Prior to that, I'd seen fingers aloft on innumerable occasions at racetracks. The litmus test seems to be whether they get on TV or not.
During the Waltrip flap, Speed Channel's Dave Despain received an interesting item from an inventor. It was a glove with a strip of metal that restrained the middle finger and kept it bent, so that you could drive but couldn't issue the digital statement.
As Despain's co-host that week, I got to model the glove. And I can tell you it was quite comfortable and practical. Wonder where that inventor is now.
NASCAR later rescinded the Waltrip penalties, calling the video inconclusive.
There was nothing inconclusive about the video of Rowdy's infraction, except for the blurred versions ESPN showed later this week in the name of family television.
Rowdy did it, all right. And this couldn't exactly be passed off as "flipping off." This was sustained gesturing, first with one middle finger, then with the other. (ESPN's ever-astute analyst Ricky Craven suggested the two-lap penalty might have been decided on the basis of "one lap for each hand.")
Rowdy happened to make the gestures toward a single NASCAR official standing in the pits holding his car like a traffic cop. That provided the easy cover for the penalties. NASCAR officials said they weren't going to tolerate such insults to one official who was just doing his job, trying to make a living, trying to support his family, etc., etc., etc.
Yeah, well anyone -- fan, official, reporter, driver, whoever -- who gets all broken up from the emotional trauma of seeing the finger at a NASCAR track doesn't belong around a NASCAR track in the first place.
But here is the far larger point: Do you think for a moment that Rowdy intended the gesture for that one official only? Symbolically, he was flipping off all of NASCAR officialdom.
So, let the first among you who has never wanted to flip off NASCAR officialdom cast the first stone.
Don't tell me you didn't want to flip them off during the entire process of ramming the Car of Tomorrow down the public's, the teams' and the drivers' throats.
Don't tell me you didn't want to flip them off during yet another green-white-checkered finish that was sure to rob your favorite driver of a win because of the mad shuffling of the restart.
Don't tell me you didn't want to flip them off during some caution for debris that you felt was going to alter the outcome of a race.
Indeed, I suspect that this season alone thousands, if not millions, of middle fingers have been raised toward television screens during races.
Many of you have verbally flipped off NASCAR --and me -- in the ESPN Conversation and in e-mails whenever I've defended the Chase as a worthwhile playoff system.
Your verbal flipping off of NASCAR chairman Brian France in the Conversation has been like a steady drumbeat season after season, since he began introducing his changes.
I personally have seen Rowdy be flipped off from the grandstands after victories, just as I saw the same thing for Jeff Gordon in his prime -- heck at Talladega at one time, you would have thought "1" was Gordon's car number.
I'm not defending Busch here. I'm pleading nolo contendere (no contest) -- about the same as after he busted up that Gibson Les Paul guitar in Victory Lane at Nashville last year.
What he did, that time and this time, showed us that there's still a bit of kid left in him. That's not necessarily a bad thing, what with all the restructuring of Busch's persona that has gone on the past two years and the harsh whittling of the square peg to fit the round hole of politically correct drivers.
What if Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton hadn't tangled mano-a-mano later on in the Texas race? What would we have had to talk about, other than a few seconds of Denny Hamlin outdueling Matt Kenseth for the win, if not for Rowdy's gestures?
By the way, you heard how the Texas crowd roared its approval during the few seconds Gordon and Burton went at it without helmets. You can bet they would have roared just as loud had they been able to see inside Busch's car.
Granted, with the driver being Rowdy, the noise might have been thunderous booing, but it all falls into the same category of enthusiastic crowd reaction, which in this day and time of doldrums for NASCAR cannot be a bad thing.
I've heard all the arguments that if a NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB player had made such a gesture to an official during a game, the player would have been summarily ejected.
I say again that this particular gesture has long been synonymous with frustration and anger while driving automobiles. There's something customary, for better or worse, about wielding the finger from inside a car.
So once again, Busch was just being a man (or kid) of the people -- middle fingers and all.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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