Don't blame the moon, blame the rules
It wasn't the full moon, no matter what anyone says. There was more beating and banging and not just with the cars than usual on Saturday night. But it had nothing to do with that full moon perched sky-high over North Carolina.
No points meant no holding back and, well, no couth during NASCAR's Nextel All-Star Challenge on Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
A restless pursuit through a qualifying round and three competition rounds, with a pot of $1.1 million sitting at the end, led to a number of wrecks and a bubbling over of many emotions.
"It's the fact that it is all about fun," said Brian Vickers, who finished third after he was involved in one of the controversial accidents.
"It's all about the passion and go all-out and win," he said. "It brings out even more emotions than maybe the way you approach a normal points race. In the points race you're still driving and still doing what you love, but you've got to think so far ahead sometimes, you kind of get lost in that.
"Tonight it's like going back and racing go-karts and, man, it's just wide open. Everybody's going for the same spot. People block each other like they normally wouldn't in a race. People race each other to pass like they wouldn't normally pass them in a normal race."
The first example was during the Nextel Open, the qualifying race that offers a couple dozen Nextel Cup racers a last chance to snatch one remaining invitation into the main event. On the last lap, while approaching the checkered flag, Vickers made contact with the leader, Mike Bliss, and Bliss was sent spinning across the finish line. However, Vickers maneuvered around the spinning Bliss and hit the start/finish line before him to gain the last berth into the all-star challenge.
Afterward, Vickers claimed Bliss was blocking. Bliss claimed that Vickers just plain spun him.
"You know, things happen," Vickers said, a bit defensive and a bit nonchalant. "It wasn't exactly how I wanted it to happen, but that's how it came out. It wasn't intentional. He was blocking, I think, more than he would normally block in a race. He was high and low everywhere I went. I'd get under and he'd cut me off and block me. I would have done the same thing.
"I'm not saying that he did anything wrong. And then coming to the line, we were going for the same spot. He came down and I was right there. It worked out. I mean, as far as my reputation, I can only race people the way I want to be raced. If the position was switched, it would have been the same way, I feel like."
Bliss wasn't as calm about the situation.
"I was getting extremely tight and I lost some ground because I got tight on the exit," he said, alluding to why he might have appeared to be moving up and down the track as if he were blocking. "He got a good run [but] I didn't expect to get wrecked. I expected him to maybe do a crossover move, go to the outside or something. Not just to get wrecked. That's what we got. We got wrecked and we're out of the game and he's in it. So, that's the name of this game, I guess."
The fallout from the Open incident, however, paled in comparison to what would happen toward the end of the second segment of the main event. It was difficult to discern what went down when Joe Nemechek spun sideways and took almost half the field in his wake.
But it was crystal clear that bad blood from the beginning of this season between Nemechek and Kevin Harvick had yet to heal.
It appeared that Tony Stewart made contact with the back of Nemechek's car and that sent Nemechek spinning. Harvick, who had just gotten fresh tires and felt like he might be able to dial his car in for contention, was the first car that Nemechek hit after going sideways. Harvick's Chevy was totalled after the incident and he was livid, quickly pointing the finger at Nemechek.
"Joe Nemechek is supposed to be one of those guys that doesn't do nothing," Harvick said. "He's acting like he doesn't do nothing. It may not have been his fault, but after Daytona and [saying that] I should be fined and all that, he can take that and shove it where the sun don't shine, baby. ... [It ticks] me off, to say the least, but I'm just tired of [Nemechek] running his mouth."
After exiting his car, Harvick sent a glare Nemechek's way. It's unclear what Nemechek said to Harvick, or even if he tried to explain that he was hit in the back and didn't intentionally run into Harvick, but Harvick grabbed hold of Nemechek's helmet and shoved him backward. At that point, the two pointed and yelled and each of their crews quickly came to their aid as officials kept them apart.
"Well, I am upset," Nemechek said. "You know, if guys want to race like that and if Kevin Harvick wants to be the [expletive] that he is and hopefully that's a good word well, that's wrong, you know?"
Nemechek said his contention was that Harvick's anger was misplaced. He said he was upset that his wreck caused the chaos, but he wasn't ready to take blame for his wrecking, passing the buck to Stewart after seeing the replays.
Stewart, though, wasn't sure it was his fault; but he also wasn't saying he was blameless. He said he never sped up, so unless Nemechek slowed down for some reason there was no way he should have hit the back of him.
"[I] was just riding behind Nemechek and I don't know what happens when you come off the corner and you're running the same speed and well, I don't know how all of a sudden you go from that to running in the back of somebody," Stewart said. "I don't know what happened or what he did, and I don't know if it's his fault, but I don't understand how we wrecked. That's the part that's puzzling me."
In the end, a half-dozen cars were beyond repair. Another handful took advantage of the exhibition rule which allowed them to repair the cars under the many red-flag stoppages the race saw.
And while the winner's crew praised driver Mark Martin for winning on such a clean display of driving, he was in the minority Saturday night. The others displayed the kind of rubbin'-is-racin' style that kept fans on their feet and drivers on edge.
"It was wild out there," driver Michael Waltrip said. "That's what you get, though, when you're racing without any points consequences or anything. It was just pride. It was just everybody trying to win, and nobody wanting second."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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