Commentary

Let 'em feud, and let us watch

Updated: May 20, 2011, 4:25 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

I'm up to the gills with the doomsaying about how these latest NASCAR feuds are liable to hurt somebody, kill somebody, blah, blah, blah.

The only difference between these things and rasslin' is that rasslers have actually been known to get hurt in their stunts.

I have never known a NASCAR feud, let alone a momentary payback, to result in serious injury to anyone.

"Yet," you may say.

We'll get to that in a minute.

[+] EnlargeKeselowski/Edwards
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski and Carl Edwards have had their disagreements, but they still haven't hurt eachother.

The worst I've ever seen from such matters was Darrell Waltrip walking around with a stiff neck the week after Neil Bonnett rammed him on the pit road at Richmond in 1978.

In what may sound like the most dangerous payback of the millennium so far, Tony Stewart a few years ago ran Matt Kenseth off the racetrack into the infield in the Daytona 500, on the fastest portion of the track: down the backstretch approaching Turn 3.

Kenseth suffered a muddy car.

After Carl Edwards launched Brad Keselowski at Atlanta two years ago, there was much weeping and wailing that somebody could have been killed or injured.

Nobody was.

The other thing I'm sick of -- as you are -- is the quote from Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, that is regurgitated ad nauseam in the media whenever tempers flare. You know, the B-H-A-I words, "Boys, have at it." We'll just make them an acronym here: BHAI.

BHAI, breathlessly and endlessly reported, does nothing in the world but let NASCAR drivers do what comes naturally to them and always has: take care of their own business.

In NASCAR's most-notorious angry moment, "The Fight," at Daytona in 1979, nobody was hurt in the wreck that preceded it, and neither Bobby nor Donnie Allison nor Cale Yarborough suffered so much as a black eye or a fat lip.

What is forgotten is that Yarborough and Donnie wrecked each other again in the very next race, at Rockingham, and took Richard Petty and Waltrip with them that time.

"If they keep this up," Petty said, "then I'm gonna start fightin'." Waltrip concurred, a bit more profanely.

The scene at the next race, at Richmond, was ludicrous: Reporters from Time magazine and the New York Daily News, in their finest Manhattan attire, bewildered looks on their faces, stomping through ankle-deep mud and grass in the infield, there to chronicle The Big Feud Down South.

That was the first time big media bit -- hook, line and sinker -- on a NASCAR feud.

By no means was it the last (see, Harvick, Kevin vs. Busch, Kyle, and Newman, Ryan vs. Montoya, Juan Pablo, just in recent weeks).

The last feud I missed was Bobby Allison vs. Richard Petty, 1967-71. And those who covered that one tell me nobody got hurt, even in a fender-banging war that raged coast-to-coast for all those years.

Benny Phillips, the grand old North Carolina sportswriter who covered NASCAR for nearly 50 years beginning in 1961, tells a story from the '90s that's pretty much the essence of all NASCAR feuding, fussing and fighting.

To paraphrase Phillips:

After Ricky Rudd and Derrike Cope beat and banged on each other during a race at North Wilkesboro, Phillips figured he'd better get to the garage to see the post-race fireworks.

Sure enough, when Cope rounded a corner among the haulers, Rudd charged him. They took each other to the ground and were rolling around when then-Winston Cup director Dick Beaty happened by.

"Git the hell up from there!" Beaty said.

He treated them, in the Southern vernacular, like two young'uns.

He got them off each other and chased them away. Thence the following dialog:

Phillips: "You gonna suspend 'em or fine 'em or anything?"

Beaty (spitting tobacco juice): "Nah."

Phillips: "Not even probation?"

Beaty: "Nah. They weren't hurtin' anything. And they DAMN sure weren't hurtin' each other."

Now you take Harvick and Busch at Darlington the other night. They didn't hurt anything, and they damn sure didn't hurt each other. Harvick's slap of Busch across the helmet visor -- and a lot of Harvick's bluster over the years -- reminds me of the legendary A.J. Foyt.

In both Indy cars and NASCAR, Foyt would go after people, backhand people, snatch them around the head or neck, etc.

But, Mario Andretti once advised, "Think about it: Have you ever seen him really hurt anybody?"

"Well, no," I said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Harvick
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesKevin Harvick sure looks tough, but has he ever actually done anything to hurt somebody?

"See?" said Mario. "It's all an act."

That's Harvick. He tipped his hand to me not long after he arrived at the Cup level, when he said, "I thrive on controversy."

If there's not one, he'll find one. He gets it honest, from a tradition that goes all the way back through Bobby Allison and before.

Now to the "Nobody's been hurt yet" argument.

These guys wouldn't be where they are if they were complete damn fools. It's their own lives and limbs they're taking into account. They know what they're doing, and they have lightning reflexes and situational awareness.

If there'd been anyone standing between Harvick's car and the pit wall at Darlington, Busch never would have pushed the car into the wall. It simply would not have happened. These guys get angry, but not crazy.

As for spectator endangerment, unlike Indy car racing, which had to learn a grave lesson with two groups of fan fatalities in 1998-99, NASCAR has always put fan safety first. It's just not good business to kill your customers.

That's why there are restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona. It has virtually nothing to do with driver safety -- Bill Elliott had just popped a 212.809-mph qualifying lap, and NASCAR was savoring the headlines, when Bobby Allison went airborne and tore down the fence during a race at Talladega in 1987. Some fans were injured. And everything changed.

The only injuries among drivers, fans, crewmen and officials that I can recall came not from feuding or payback, but from "good, hard racing," as they call it.

When Keselowski launched Edwards as they dueled for the win at Talladega in '09, fans were injured. When Edwards launched Keselowski for payback at Atlanta last year, no fans were hurt.

Nobody was hurt in the recent melee at Darlington, but a week later, in a Nationwide race at Dover, one of Clint Bowyer's crewmen suffered a leg injury from shrapnel from a terrible crash, the result of "good, hard racing" among Edwards, Joey Logano and Bowyer at the finish.

As the NASCAR rulebook says right up front, racing is an inherently dangerous endeavor. Every time they fire the engines and roll off the grid, the lives and limbs of drivers, crewmen, fans, officials and yes, even the media, are more endangered than they would be strolling in some park.

A little anger -- and a little showmanship -- don't hurt anything.

And they're damn sure not hurting each other.

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