Edwards in the eye of the storm
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Carl Edwards was making his way down the steep banking in Turn 3 on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway when a fan shouted, "Put him in the wall, Carl!"
There are a lot of storylines we could be, and maybe should be, following at what is billed the "half-mile of havoc."
Sunday will mark the 93rd and final Sprint Cup race with the rear wing before NASCAR returns to the spoiler next weekend at Martinsville. It will mark the first time that drivers deal with 84 feet of SAFER barriers extended from the corners of Turns 2 and 4 to shrink the racing surface by 3 feet.
It will mark the first time that Scott Speed and Paul Menard, normally fighting to stay inside the top 35, will race in the top 12 in driver points. It will mark the first time Speed will race with his newly dyed black hair with blue splotches.
But the storyline that keeps demanding attention remains the feud between Edwards and Brad Keselowski. It's even added an extra element with Edwards and Kevin Harvick taking shots at each other Friday, rekindling their quarrel from 2008.
The other stories are nice and bring up interesting statistics. Did you know that four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won 21 races, 22.8 percent, with the rear wing, and that Kyle Busch is second with 13 victories?
Nice, but what such stories lack is emotion, and fans want emotion. Drivers do, too. Look at Stewart's reaction when asked about this being the last wing race.
"Who cares?" he said. "Not going to have it next week. Doesn't matter. I don't have an opinion. Thanks for asking."
Ask him about Bristol and the two-time Cup champion's emotion meter goes up for the same reason it does with the fans. It's why before this weekend Bristol sold out 55 consecutive Cup races, more than any other track. No place brings out the raw, in-your-face passion generated from exchanging sheet metal in tight quarters for 500 laps like Bristol does.
Who will forget the August 1995 night race in which Dale Earnhardt sent Terry Labonte across the finish line backward? Or when Rusty Wallace threw a water bottle at Earnhardt after the race? Or the chorus of boos Earnhardt received after spinning Labonte on the final lap to win the 1999 race?
The list goes on and on.
"This is one of those tracks where people's tempers can get the best of them," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "Close action causes those moments we all remember. But you don't want to take those away because a guy is sitting there worried 'I'm going to be fined points.' That's what I like about what NASCAR is doing."
Bristol-type emotion is what NASCAR officials wanted to recapture when they told drivers to "have at it, boys" before the season. It's why they couldn't suspend Edwards after he deliberately wrecked Keselowski with less than three laps remaining two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Sunday's Cup race at Bristol will be the final race with a rear wing on the car, first introduced with the "Car of Tomorrow" in the spring race at Bristol back in 2007. Jimmie Johnson has won 21 of the 92 races (22.8 percent) with the rear wing. How do the other drivers stack up? ESPN Studio Research did the legwork.
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||1|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||1|
|Martin Truex Jr.||1|
The image of Keselowski's car going airborne and landing on its hood remains the hot topic because it evoked anger, fear, disgust and even pleasure from those who thought the driver of Penske Racing's No. 12 Dodge deserved what he got because of past instance.
It evoked emotion.
If you weren't talking about it in the garage, you surely were being asked about it. Everybody from seven-time champion Richard Petty to the gas man for the No. 43 has an opinion on it.
"Uncalled for," Petty said. "It could have been settled in another way."
Said Jeff Burton: "What happened at Atlanta, it wasn't pretty. It was a situation that I think surprised a lot of us. It's not how it should have been handled."
Said Jimmie Johnson: "[Keselowski's] got to stand up for what he feels is right for himself and his race team. But you just don't turn off a garage area as fast as he has for no reason, so he's got to work on that in my eyes."
Said Speed: "It's pretty clear that [NASCAR] has given us the green light to be more aggressive and take matters into our own hands a little bit and sort of have at it. ... It's good for all of us. We really don't feel like we're being watched under a microscope, and we feel like we can do what we want and show our emotions and make this sport more exciting."
Not that Speed has to be egged on to show more personality. Anybody that goes to the salon and dyes his hair black and blue against his wife's wishes doesn't need encouragement for much of anything.
But the impact of "have at it, boys" is creating the desired results. Drivers not only are more aggressive on the track; they are less hesitant to speak their mind without fear of being slapped with a fine or penalty.
Harvick and Edwards certainly didn't mind communicating their thoughts Friday. Harvick reiterated that he considered Edwards a fake after a physical confrontation with him in 2008.
Edwards responded by saying, "I have absolutely no respect for Kevin Harvick. I think he's a bad person. That's my opinion. I've told him that. We've had our deal before and his actions through that interaction were so devious and underhanded and cowardly that, it's like, I just have no respect for him."
Good stuff if you're a race fan. It makes you pick a side. It makes you emotionally engaged the way fans were in 1979 when Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers exchanged fisticuffs in the infield following the Daytona 500.
It's what NASCAR wanted. It's what NASCAR got.
That the next race happens to be at Bristol, where emotions already run high, just adds to the intrigue. It is, as Clint Bowyer jokingly said, "God's way of having a little enjoyment."
Odds are the racing will generate more excitement than a continuation of the Edwards-Keselowski feud. NASCAR plans to meet with both drivers Saturday and, as Burton said, the boys will be reminded "in a way they won't soon forget" who is in charge.
"The message we have sent out there is they have to be responsible," vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said earlier this week. "We're still going to maintain law and order on the racetrack."
But they are going to do it in such a way that drivers can self-police as promised and fans can be engaged enough to shout "Put him in the wall, Carl" before the first practice.
Emotion. Should make this weekend, as Gordon said, a "real treat."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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