Inevitably, drivers end up getting along
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Brad Keselowski takes a left to the chin. Then a right to the gut. He tries to fight back with a couple of uppercuts. Now he's on the defense. He's taking a pounding to the head.
The crowd cheers wildly as the driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge is sprawled out on the floor, flopping like a fish that's just been landed on the deck of a boat.
This is not the scene behind the NASCAR hauler at Bristol Motor Speedway where Keselowski and Carl Edwards met Saturday morning to discuss their differences from the incident two weeks ago in which Edwards intentionally punted his 26-year-old rival.
It's not a projected scene from a postrace fight following Sunday's Sprint Cup race at the half-mile track where tempers often flare more than they do for boxers in the ring.
It could be, but it's not.
This is a Wii boxing match Friday night at the BMS fan experience, where Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Scott Speed, AJ Allmendinger, Joey Logano and Elliott Sadler entertained wearing silk robes with nicknames such as Rowdy, Bulldozer and Brawlin' printed on the back.
The frustration and stress seen earlier in the day during practice and qualifying were replaced by smiles and laughter. The last thing on Harvick's mind was being called a "bad person" and "devious, underhanded and cowardly" by Edwards.
This is life in NASCAR's traveling circus. Drivers can be bitter enemies one moment and fun-loving friends the next. They have to be when they spend three or four days a week, 36 times a year, living in the same motorcoach lot. To bottle up anger and let it boil for long periods of time just doesn't work in such close confines.
That doesn't mean everybody is buddy-buddy like Busch and Speed or that they gather around a campfire after work and exchange stories of the day. It's doubtful Edwards and Harvick will share any family meals or even friendly glances anytime soon.
But for the most part everybody gets along. Edwards admits Keselowski is a "great guy" when he's not pushing him around on the track. Keselowski says he respected Edwards before and after the incident that sent Keselowski airborne and took away a top-10 finish.
"You've got to reset, without a doubt," Keselowski said.
The same driver who flips you off or calls you an idiot -- or worse -- on Sunday can be your dinner guest the following week. Sadler estimates that 85 to 95 percent of the drivers like each other away from the track.
"When you're always fighting for the same piece of real estate and there is only so many pieces of the pie, of course you're going to have bad moments on the track, you're gonna be mad," he said. "This sport is so competitive. Everybody feels like they're fighting for a job, fighting for a top 12, fighting for a sponsor and then real estate on Sunday.
"Of course you're going to react, but away from the track a lot of us guys really get along."
It's been this way for a long time, some argue since drivers began living amongst each other in motorcoaches in the early 1990s.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt were bitter rivals on the track. Gordon recalled a 1993 incident at Phoenix in which the man in the black No. 3 sent him backward into the wall because he thought the brash young driver was racing him too hard, too early.
At the same track in 2007 Gordon held a black No. 3 flag out of his window after the victory in which he tied Earnhardt with 76 wins. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. reminded after that moment, Gordon and his father were friends and partnered in many business ventures.
In 2007, Tony Stewart said about Kyle Busch many of the same things Edwards and others have about Keselowski's aggressiveness. A year later, they were teammates sharing information.
"Relative to everybody else, we're all close," Busch said. "In the heat of the moment, yeah, they mean it. But once you get back behind the wall, it's over with."
Well, not over. But at least the hard feelings don't seem to last as long as they did when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison or Petty and Cale Yarborough were archrivals. Then drivers weren't around each other as much outside the garage. They didn't all live in million-dollar homes on Lake Norman near Charlotte, N.C., and eat in the same restaurants.
We can't avoid each other. You have to learn not to take things too personal. Take them seriously, but not too personal. We're the only sport that races the same people every week. It requires a little different mindset.” -- Jeff Burton
Many of today's drivers see each other as much during the week as they do during the weekend.
Maybe that's why rivalries seemingly don't last longer than a few weeks, a few months at most. Edwards and Keselowski were laughing and leaning over the hood of Keselowski's car in conversation less than 20 minutes after their come-to-Jesus meeting with NASCAR.
"We can't avoid each other," Burton said. "You have to learn not to take things too personal. Take them seriously, but not too personal. We're the only sport that races the same people every week. It requires a little different mindset."
This isn't like the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, who play maybe twice a year. Or even the Red Sox and Yankees, who play more than a dozen times a year.
The players don't stay in separate hotels in NASCAR. The sport doesn't pit city versus city or culture versus culture like others.
"What's important about our job is everybody understands why we're here," Burton said. "Everybody understands you're here to win, and that means you're here to beat them. I know everybody I'm racing against wants to win and do better than me. But you don't have to take it personal, and you have to learn how to do that."
It seems more times than not when drivers are involved in a conflict one week, the following week they are paired in the same truck for prerace introductions or parked next to each other on pit road.
"You see everybody day to day and there's gonna be people you don't like but you've got to get along with them," said Bowyer, who handed Keselowski the final blow in Wii boxing. "If you are around people long enough, you're going to have altercations. You have to get over it."
Friendships never are tested more than at Bristol. That was particularly true before the track was reconfigured a few years ago, allowing drivers to pass without knocking the cars ahead of them out of the way.
But it'll still be heated on Sunday, maybe more than at any race of the season.
"We're here tonight all of us boxing and having a good time," Sadler said as he won the Wii title for the second straight year. "It's a really high percentage some of us are going to be mad with each other before Sunday is over with."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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