Carl Edwards: Bristol payback too risky

3/26/2011 - NASCAR

FONTANA, Calif. -- We're behind the No. 99 hauler at Auto Club Speedway on a wet Friday morning, listening to Carl Edwards once again address whether he should have knocked Kyle Busch out of the way last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

You know, pay Busch back for wrecking him at Phoenix as he promised.

Edwards admits he thought about it with about 30 laps to go, but says it was too early to start a banging match with his rival from Joe Gibbs Racing, arguing the result might have been something worse than the second-place finish he seemed quite happy to get.

Like he said after the race Sunday at Bristol, Edwards echoes he still owes Busch one, reminding us the Phoenix incident cost him plenty in the points standings.

Enough talk.

Just do it.

"I've heard Carl say that a couple of times in regard to Busch," said Jeff Burton, Edwards' former teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "I guess if he feels he needs to do that, he needs to quit talking about it and do it."

If it sounds as though Burton is promoting payback, you're wrong. He's just saying there's no need to threaten if you don't plan to follow through. Jeff Gordon agreed, saying he never would have said what Edwards did, even though he might have thought it.

As much as we like to think drivers go from track to track looking for revenge against drivers who wronged them the week before, or simply are willing to do whatever it takes to win a race, it's not the case.

Remember Martin Truex Jr.'s vow to pay Gordon back for what happened at Sonoma? Never followed through.

That "Have at it, boys" attitude never really was the case, but it did sound good at a time, when NASCAR was trying to get back to its roots and distance itself from being too heavy-handed.

We're still a long way from the days of Dale Earnhardt spinning Terry Labonte for a win at Bristol or David Pearson and Richard Petty trading paint heading for the finish line in the Daytona 500.

And to be honest, there were only a handful of guys willing to take that chance then, as there are now.

"What always has blown me away is when I think of Dale or anyone that didn't mind just shoving guys out of the way, I never understood how that didn't come back to bite them in the championship," said Gordon, a four-time champion. "I always wondered, as aggressive as Dale was, could he have won nine championships? When I look at racing and think of going for wins and being aggressive and doing everything that it takes, you always have to weigh that out. What's it worth?"

That's what Edwards was thinking. It was too early in the season, even at Bristol, where you can justify knocking somebody out of the way, to make an unnecessary enemy and spoil the momentum in easily his best start to a season.

"Look, it boils down to this," said Edwards, one point behind leader Kurt Busch in the Cup standings. "I had my opportunity to pass [Kyle Busch]. I couldn't pass him. I wasn't fast enough. If I could have got to him with one or two to go, maybe I could have made something happen. I know that's what all the fans wanted to see.

"Trust me, nobody wanted to see it more than me. I'd have loved to been in that position. But as it was, I wasn't in position to consider that."

Even if Edwards were in position, there are no guarantees he would have shoved Busch out of the way. It wasn't Brad Keselowski he was dealing with. It was a driver he could be contending for wins and top-5s with all season long.

If he ticks Busch off for the sake of payback, which Busch doesn't think he really deserves because the Phoenix incident wasn't intentional, that could be costly in a championship run.

The problem is we hear drivers say every week they do everything they can to win. Not knocking Busch out of the way, particularly with the promise of payback, might be construed as settling for second.

You know that "It was a good points day" line most of us hate?

"The fans take that the wrong way, the media take that the wrong way, as if you're not doing everything today you possibly could to win that race," Gordon said. "You're saying you left something on the table that you could have done to win that race.

"A lot of people will perceive the mentality to win the championship is you go for it at all times, whatever it takes."

Drivers, for the most part, treat this like golf, a gentleman's game. If somebody gets into the side of somebody at California, he'll probably apologize at the first opportunity.

That doesn't mean there isn't aggressive driving, as we've seen early and often in the first four races. It just means there's not an "anything goes" mentality.

"Obviously, [Edwards] felt like he was going to try to pass him clean at that point of the race," Denny Hamlin said. "That's usually the strategy guys have. When they're that close to the lead with 30 to go, you're going to work as hard as you can to race the guy as clean as possible, not get into him."

Sounds like another sign there never really was a "Have at it, boys" mentality.

"Carl knows, with any kind of move he makes that's not necessarily ethical, it's going to come back to him," Hamlin said. "It's just too early in the season to stir the pot, I guess you could say."

That appears to be the universal mentality in the garage: Play nice with others, and others will play nice with you.

"Carl is emotional and says stuff, but every driver every week has people walk up to them and say, 'Hey, spin this guy, wreck him, put him on the wall,'" Burton said. "And my response always is, 'Why don't we just outrun them?' Isn't there a whole lot more satisfaction in just outrunning them?"

If Carl wants to continue saying he owes me one, whatever, I don't care. I'm racing my race and how I should be racing and racing all my competitors and not worried about all that stuff.

-- Kyle Busch

Even Busch thinks that way. If there is concern over Edwards' threats, he's not showing it.

"If Carl wants to continue saying he owes me one, whatever, I don't care," Busch said. "I'm racing my race and how I should be racing and racing all my competitors and not worried about all that stuff."

There will be a lot of opportunities to outrun people at California, where a driver often gets the right setup and checks out. Even with the race shortened by 100 miles -- a very good thing -- that likely will happen.

But there will be opportunities on restarts to swap paint that probably won't happen because that's not the mindset. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just the way you have to race to keep yourself in championship contention, maybe more now than ever because the new points system rewards consistency more than wins.

At the end of the day, Burton and most other drivers take more pride in being able to outrace each other, instead of pulling off a questionable maneuver to win.

"There's always an opportunity to knock someone out of the way and win the race -- every week," Burton said. "Every week there's a restart and you're the guy who's not as fast as the guy who's going to win the race."

But every once in a while, like last weekend at Bristol, fans want to see a driver put it all on the line and go for the win -- like a running back putting his body at risk by hurling his body at a much larger linebacker at the goal line.

That the body in front of Edwards last weekend was the oft-controversial and oft-hated Busch made that situation more compelling. It could have been the perfect have-at-it moment.

It wasn't.

Maybe it will happen down the road. Maybe Edwards really is saving "one," or at least playing mind games with Busch. Or maybe "Have at it, boys" should have a notation beside it -- as in "Have at it, unless it could cost someone a title."

"He asked for me to give it back to him at the All-Star Race," Edwards said of Busch. "You never know, maybe that's how it'll end out."

It probably won't.

It's time to admit we all made too much out of "Boys, have at it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.