Here's to Hoping for Title Chase
It's all set up just the way it should be, and as close to the way NASCAR would have scripted it as it has been in a long, long time.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup is coming down to the final race this Sunday at Miami-Homestead Speedway with some real drama building. One race. Two drivers. And only three points separating them in the Chase standings.
Well, the hope is that nothing will screw it up. But as long as Brian Vickers and possibly some other narrow-minded, short-sighted drivers are entered in the field of 43 along with championship contenders Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart this Sunday, you never really know.
That much was underscored this past Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, where television replays clearly showed Vickers driving right into the back of Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford on Lap 177 of the Kobalt Tools 500 in an apparent move of retaliation for another series of incidents involving the two drivers two weeks earlier at Martinsville Speedway.
Although Vickers later denied to at least one reporter that he deliberately took out Kenseth, the videotape appeared to tell a different tale, leaving Kenseth livid. In light of what happened one week earlier -- when Kyle Busch got parked for the remainder of the race weekend at Texas after wrecking Ron Hornaday during a caution early in the Camping World Truck Series -- it was justifiably mystifying to Kenseth and others as to why Vickers was allowed to get away with it without any kind of penalty levied by NASCAR. Everyone had seemed to agree that it was time to bring some sanity to all this tit-for-tat retaliation business.
John Darby, managing director of competition for the Sprint Cup Series, issued a statement following the race that said: "Had we felt it was more than a racing incident, we would have reacted." But this seemed more than coincidental or hardly incidental, and wasn't the first time in recent weeks that Vickers bounced off multiple cars only to escape the day without so much as a reprimand from the governing body that supposedly is trying to cut down on needless retaliation.
To fill in the background, Kenseth and Vickers tangled at Martinsville for several laps, banging door-to-door, before Kenseth, then still a legitimate Chase contender, grew weary of it and booted Vickers out of the way. Kenseth argued later that he had the faster car and that he could wait patiently only so long and absorb only so much door-to-door abuse before he had to move the slower Vickers out of the way.
Was Kenseth in the wrong? Not really. If he was faster, and it certainly appears that he's been markedly faster than the struggling Vickers all season, then you do what you have to do at a short track like Martinsville after giving the slower car and driver every opportunity in the world to move out of the way within a reasonable period of time.
Yet this apparently stuck in Vickers' craw. He tried to get Kenseth back later in the day at Martinsville, but failed and only managed to spin himself out. He vowed to get even some day soon. That led to last Sunday, when Vickers, who finished the day 23rd in the race and 25th in the point standings, finally appeared to seize what he saw as just that opportunity.
"Well yeah, obviously it is retaliation for retaliation I guess," said Kenseth, who finished 34th in the race but remains sixth in the points. "I was out of brakes and I was up on everybody and I saw him coming and I lifted at least 10 car lengths before where I would normally lift and he drove in there at 165 miles per hour and cleaned us out. I don't know. If NASCAR is going to start parking people for being mad 25 seconds after you wreck and wrecking somebody [in reference to the Busch-Hornaday incident], then [it seems] you would park somebody for that.
"You have someone who has been telling everybody for four or five weeks [actually only two] that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out -- and they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated it just surprises me that they didn't do anything."
So while Kenseth admitted he wasn't totally surprised Vickers took a shot at him, he just couldn't figure out why NASCAR didn't penalize Vickers for it.
"I am disappointed, but I expected it," Kenseth said. "We aren't racing street stocks at a quarter-mile track, so they need to figure out how to get the drivers to settle their differences in a different way and talk about it or figure it out or do something instead of using your car as a battering ram somewhere this fast."
Vickers began this season as one of the top feel-good stories in NASCAR. He was returning to the track after missing most of last season because of a blood-clotting condition that needed to be treated.
But on a day when Kasey Kahne, Vickers' teammate at soon-to-be-defunct Red Bull Racing, won the race and everyone should have been talking about that and the dramatic championship battle being waged between Edwards and Stewarts, Vickers inappropriately injected himself into the conversation. What if Edwards and/or Stewart had been caught up as collateral damage in the wreck he caused?
Vickers presumably is out of a Cup ride at the end of the season when Red Bull carries out plans to close down the organization. He could end up in another seat depending on what happens with efforts to revive the Red Bull operation in some other shape, form or fashion -- or if someone else steps up to offer him an opportunity.
But he's doing himself no favors and making few friends in the Sprint Cup garage these days. Kenseth, who is about to complete his 12th full season driving for Roush Fenway Racing and owns 21 career Cup victories to Vickers' two wins and zero titles, hardly has a reputation for taking cheap shots.
Asked after Sunday's latest incident if he had been tempted to take Vickers out when he finally returned to the track at Phoenix many laps down, Kenseth replied: "No, not at all. I don't stoop to that level. When we had our problem at Martinsville, it was heat of the moment where he hit me eight or nine times and I hit him once.
"In hindsight I should have let him go and left him alone because you realize who he is and what he is and all that. You probably should leave him alone and go on. I would never sit down there and wait for somebody and take a cheap shot like that. You can hurt someone like that and that isn't sportsmanlike and that isn't something I would do."
Asked what he would do about it now, Kenseth added: "Nothing. We go race at Homestead."
Let's hope they both have enough good sense to stay out of the way of the guys racing for the trophy. Kenseth, it appears, can be trusted to use his God-given common sense. Vickers? We'll have to get back to you on that one.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.