Generally, when fans think about NASCAR and fighting, they flash back to the Daytona brawl of 1979 — because nothing since has even come close to rivaling it. There are disagreements and shoves every time NASCAR visits a short track, but nothing all that memorable.
Brad Keselowski was furious enough at Matt Kenseth on Saturday that he brake-jobbed Kenseth in front of the field after the checkered flag. Then he frantically climbed from his car on pit road and landed a punch to Kenseth’s jaw — oh, wait, that’s what Keselowski wishes he did. He actually climbed from his car, was careful to keep his helmet on and gave Kenseth a solid point of his index finger, and then ran away. That’ll teach him, Brad.
That’s how most NASCAR fights go. When there is confrontation, there’s rarely physical contact. Crew members intervene and give the impression that their holding back their bad-ass driver, who act as though they’re prepared to tear somebody’s face off, when in reality that driver wouldn’t do any more than fire a water bottle from a safe distance. Then the drivers bad-mouth each other’s driving abilities to reporters afterward.
Marcos Ambrose didn’t get the memo, or maybe it was Casey Mears and all of the crew members standing close by who didn’t get it at Richmond. When Mears appeared to shove Ambrose to the side during their post-race disagreement on Saturday, crew members didn’t immediately intervene, and Mears found out quickly that he wasn’t messing with Keselowski. Ambrose didn’t take kindly to being moved by the 5-foot-1 Mears in the pit area after an incident on the track and pulled back and landed a punch to the left side of Mears’ face. It knocked Mears’ hat off his head and left him with a black eye the next morning for his Jimmie Johnson Foundation 5K run.
I mean, Ambrose actually punched him in the face. Is that allowed?
That’s what NASCAR officials have to determine. Vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, said on Saturday night that the fight will be investigated, but “we don’t think it was anything too severe.”
NASCAR better think long and hard about its decision, though, because it will set a precedent. Before Ambrose, when was the last time you remember a Sprint Cup driver punching another Sprint Cup driver? The last comparable incident I can remember came in 2003 when Kurt Busch intentionally tried to cut Jimmy Spencer’s tire down when they were racing side-by-side at Michigan and Spencer punched Busch after the race. Spencer was suspended one race and fined $25,000.
That was 11 years ago, though. That was before “Boys, have at it” was introduced, before Brian France took over as president and CEO, and right before NASCAR began its downward slide in ratings. It also wasn’t broadcast live on national television like Ambrose’s haymaker.
NASCAR has to determine if that punch was really much worse than the shoving and trash talk that we usually see. Was it that much worse than Tony Stewart’s Fontana tirade in 2013? It’s a fine line, though, because Ambrose’s infamous punch had garnered more than 205,000 YouTube views as of Monday morning and is all the talk at the water coolers. Last time, I know NASCAR needed that.
In a day and age of robot drivers and robot reactions, Ambrose proved to be anything but. His emotion could’ve been the ether needed to reignite a fan base that misses the days of feuds and rivalries. Is it fair to penalize him for “actions detrimental to stock car racing” when his actions really benefited the sport? If no penalties come about, what kind of message does it send to young racing fans? If they penalize Ambrose, don’t they have to penalize Mears as well for initiating the contact in the first place? How much is a punch worth as opposed to an aggressive shove?
Those are some really difficult questions for a governing body that has struggled to make consistent, or at times, even logical decisions. Now, NASCAR has a chance to set a precedent for something we hadn’t seen in a really long time. The pressure is on.