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Column: No NASCAR penalty needed for Va. scrap PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 8:10 PM

By JENNA FRYER

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quick quiz: Who won the 1979 Daytona 500?

The answer, of course, is Richard Petty.

But very few people — if any — equate that race with “The King” grabbing the sixth of his seven Daytona 500 victories. That race is instead infamous for the last-lap crash between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough as they raced for the lead. The crash sparked a 3-man fight after Allison’s brother, Bobby, pulled up to the accident scene.

The brawl in the closing moments of the first race to be broadcast live in its entirety was a monumental moment for NASCAR and the lasting image as the traditionally Southern sport officially announced its arrival on the national scene.

Fast forward 35 years later to Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, where tempers flared after the race. It seemed much ado about nothing when Brad Keselowski stomped down pit road to angrily wag his finger at Matt Kenseth in a scene that was just enough to keep viewers from changing the channel but not enough to generate any real excitement.

Then things got really interesting.

An overhead camera happened to catch Casey Mears confronting Marcos Ambrose in the garage. About? Who knows. The two were racing each other for 18th place and Fox hardly had its cameras tuned to that battle.

But something happened between the two to get Mears upset and his anger only grew as Ambrose seemed to dismiss him and turn away. So Mears grabbed the Australian, shoved him a bit and Ambrose responded with a right hook to Mears’ eye. It was hard enough to draw blood and knock Mears’ hat from atop his head.

NASCAR is reviewing the incident and considering whether to discipline either of the drivers in its Tuesday penalty notices.

If the sanctioning body is smart, it will close the file and move on to Talladega without taking any action against either driver.

Forget for a minute that it was a fight that put NASCAR on the national map and that hard-scrabble, passionate drivers who aren’t afraid of confrontation are the bedrock of the sport. To this day, it’s those incidents that generate the most conversation. Joey Logano’s late pass of Kenseth, Keselowski and Jeff Gordon to win the race didn’t garner many national headlines on Sunday but Ambrose’s shot to Mears’ face most certainly did.

The decision to leave Ambrose and Mears alone isn’t about the attention that a fight draws to the sport.

It’s about short-track racing on a Saturday night and the emotions that come from driving hard on tight tracks and in close quarters. Fans watch Bristol and Martinsville and Richmond fully expecting to be treated to bumping and banging and the post-race confrontations that come from explosive tempers.

The incidents are celebrated and find their way into promotional materials for the tracks and NASCAR itself.

Taking that into account, Mears can’t be punished for confronting Ambrose after the race. Something happened on the track that infuriated him enough to seek out Ambrose.

That conversation happened to take place in the garage, NASCAR’s version of the office place and it happened in a flurry of frenetic, post-race activity. Drivers return their cars to the haulers after the race and at Richmond, the haulers are lined up in tight quarters. Crews are working furiously to pack up the car and the equipment, fans are milling about trying to chase down their favorite driver, reporters are rushing to seek out interviews before the parties slip away in the darkness.

In that setting, Ambrose was grabbed and then shoved by a fellow driver. He reacted violently with a punch that might have startled Floyd Mayweather Jr., let alone Mears.

Should Ambrose be punished for defending himself? For reacting in a heated moment? Absolutely not. It wasn’t a sucker punch, it didn’t put any crew members or fans in danger and Mears himself seemed to take it in stride.

The morning after he was punched, Mears ran in Jimmie Johnson’s charity race and acknowledged Ambrose “got me pretty good with that shot” in an interview with NASCAR.com.

“Out of all the NASCAR fights or punches or when you see people swinging, usually it’s a lot of fly-swatting. He actually connected so that was pretty good,” Mears said. “Everybody gets mad after those races when everybody is trying so hard. It’s a passionate sport, obviously. It’s tough when you first get out of the car, when you don’t have a good chance to cool off, it escalates pretty quick.”

Indeed, the culture of short-track racing is an expectation of post-race fireworks.

Unless NASCAR wants to remove that element and expectation, it should leave Ambrose and Mears alone.

NASCAR penalizes Ambrose and Mears for RIR fight: NASCAR punished Ambrose and Mears on Tuesday for their post-race altercation in the garage at Richmond International Raceway that led to Ambrose punching Mears in the face.

Ambrose was fined $25,000 and placed on probation through May 28. Mears was fined $15,000 and received the same probation.

NASCAR revealed in a statement both drivers were penalized for actions detrimental to stock car racing and received a “Behavioral Penalty” because they were “involved in an altercation in the garage area after the race.”

“Marcos Ambrose accepts the penalties levied by NASCAR after his actions at Richmond International Raceway,” the statement added.

Kurt Busch getting comfortable in IndyCar testing

INDIANAPOLIS — Kurt Busch is starting to feel comfortable in his new IndyCar.

He knows all the buttons in the cockpit, he knows how the wind feels as he speeds around Indianapolis Motor Speedway and now he knows what it feels like to top 220 mph, too.

Busch had a solid showing in testing at the Brickyard’s historic 2.5-mile oval on Tuesday. The 2004 Sprint Cup champion is attempting to become the fourth driver to complete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Both races are scheduled for May 25.

But there’s a lot more work to go between now and then.

“Michael (Andretti) said last year the pole speed was 227 or 228 and he expects it to go up a couple of miles per hour this year, so he’s saying it’s going to be about 230,” Busch said one day after unveiling his No. 26 Honda at the Andretti team’s Indianapolis shop. “Right now, we’re keeping it at a nice, gradual pace of comfort.”

The plan is to ramp things up fast.

Busch explained he has been training hard since early February. The regiment calls for him to run 1½ miles, then do an hour of cardio work before running another 1½ miles home. In addition, he’s sprinkled in some martial arts and the 35-year-old can already see a difference in the way he feels at the end of those grueling Cup races.

Completing the 1,100-mile marathon will require more than just training.

Busch’s May schedule includes at least 10 trips between Indy and Charlotte, so he can do his full-time job in the No. 41 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. Charlotte Motor Speedway also has granted permission for Busch to land a helicopter on the frontstretch of the track to help speed up the commute between races.

And Busch cleared another hurdle Tuesday by officially passing the final two phases of Indy’s rookie orientation program.

Busch and 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve were the only two drivers on the track and it didn’t take either one very long to complete their rookie orientation, which is based on the number of laps run at a fast-enough speed. Track officials gave them a pass on completing the first phase because of their vast racing experience.

Driving conditions were less than ideal.

Heavy overnight rain delayed the start of testing by roughly two hours and pushed back the scheduled lunch break. When the rain returned in the afternoon, speedway officials closed the track 45 minutes early.

In between, the drivers had to contend with a mixture of bright sunshine, gusty winds, cloud cover and cooling temperatures.

For the 43-year-old Villeneuve, it marked the first time he had driven an IndyCar at this track since winning the 500 in 1995 — the same year he went on to win the series championship.

It wasn’t exactly old hat. His fastest lap was 217.8 mph and it took some effort to go that fast.

Busch had a similar experience last year when he climbed into an IndyCar for the first time. He wasn’t quite sure what all the buttons were for; once he made it onto the track, he was thrown by the air buffeting his head. This time, he was prepared.

The only question now is whether he’ll be fast enough to contend for the pole on qualifying weekend and whether he’ll be able to complete — or win — both of the Memorial Day races.

“It was nice to settle in and go through the gears,” said Busch, who already has one Cup win this season. “I’m confident with the car.”

Busch plans to return to the track for testing May 5 when at least four other drivers are scheduled to take their rookie tests.

The 25 regular IndyCar drivers are all expected to participate in today’s road-course test in preparation for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 10.

Karam lands Indy 500 ride with Ganassi and DRR: High school senior Sage Karam will race in his first Indianapolis 500 next month in a car fielded jointly by Chip Ganassi Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing.

Karam is the reigning Indy Lights champion but the 19-year-old was unable to parlay that into a full-time IndyCar ride. Instead, he’s hooked on with Ganassi in a driver development role. He’ll drive the No. 22 Chevrolet in his Indianapolis 500 debut under a deal announced Tuesday.

“It is honestly a dream come true for me and my racing career,” said Karam, who hails from Nazareth, Pa., the hometown of the Andretti family. “Chip has created a fantastic organization that judges success by just one thing — winning both races and championships. This is a very big day for me.”

Karam ran in the first two events of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship with Ganassi and drove with Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan at Sebring. He is the first driver to compete at all levels of the Mazda Road to Indy program and the only one to win races at each level.

Larson races for Ganassi in the Sprint Cup Series, while Kwasniewski is in a development deal and races in the Nationwide Series for Turner Scott Motorsports.

 

 

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