Column: It takes a brawl for NASCAR to go mainstream

2017-03-13 14:48:38

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kyle Busch had a gash on his forehead and blood running down his nose when he promised payback to Joey Logano. The two had a brief post-race pit road brawl that can be seen on TMZ, the ''Today Show'' and, really, just about anywhere.

The tussle shoved NASCAR into the watercooler talk Monday alongside the NCAA Tournament, and the reason why should be a wakeup call to every stakeholder in the stagnant sport because, like it or not, Busch getting pummeled by Logano's crew is the lasting memory of the race.

NASCAR can make any format change under the sun, try gimmicks, slick marketing or the Monster Energy Girls, but its mainstream audience wants drama. Only racing fans know that a late caution nearly cost Martin Truex Jr. the win, that Brad Keselowski lost the race because of a car part failure and that his disabled race car likely led to the Busch-Logano brouhaha.

Inside the racing bubble, all of this is both a dream come true and a nightmare.

NASCAR doesn't want to be known for brawling , and its drivers don't particularly enjoy the scrutiny and/or punishment that comes from bad behavior. But this sport is in desperate need of rivalries, and nothing gets people talking like a bloodied face after a race.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France suggested the drivers aren't likely to receive harsh penalties.

''We just shouldn't come out of our chairs over this,'' France said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. ''The pressure on these guys today is so difficult. So it shouldn't surprise anybody that every once in a while, somebody is going to boil over, somebody is going to think that they saw an incident in a different way and, whether it's true or not true doesn't matter, emotions are going to get the best of them. That's just part of it.''

The Busch-Logano bout Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway happened in the pits.

Busch felt that Logano wrecked him as the two raced for position past Keselowski's slowed car, so he sped down pit road, leaving the bulk of his Joe Gibbs Racing crew behind, and sought out Logano. When he found his former teammate, Busch went in swinging.

Logano insists he wasn't hit, video is inconclusive, but Busch walking into a group of Team Penske employees was a recipe for disaster. It was the Penske crew members who pulled Busch away, got him to the ground and, in that scrum, bloodied his head.

Roger Penske has said his employees are there to defuse those situations - his drivers, Logano and Keselowski, have had their share of confrontations - but the only defusing came from one public relations employee who forcefully pulled Logano out of the fray. Most everyone else on the scene seemed all too eager to get their hands on Busch and that's a problem for NASCAR. These are not situations where the crew should get involved. It's for NASCAR officials to intervene, and it ultimately was a pair of NASCAR employees who pulled Busch from the pile and out of the way.

Keselowski, who was punched in the face by Jeff Gordon in a 2014 scrum of team members, noted the issue on Twitter after the race.

''Fighting in Motorsport is dumb,'' Keselowski tweeted. ''It always turns into a pile and your own guys hit each other. At least in hockey they are good at it.''

Well, the NHL is actually trying to curb fighting, but Keselowski's point is valid. Driver disputes must be policed by NASCAR, not the teams.

France seemed to think everything will be taken care of because there's precedent. Although Busch vowed to exact revenge, France believes the 2015 blowback from a long-running feud between Busch teammate Matt Kenseth and Logano will put an end to possible payback.

''There will be no retaliation,'' France told Sirius. ''That will not be happening. That's not going to happen anyway. The drivers understand what we did a couple of years ago at Martinsville (suspending Matt Kenseth two races for wrecking Logano), that is unacceptable.

''So what happens on the track, good or for bad for one driver or another, that's where it stays, and we move on to the next event.''

We'll see. This incident certainly hasn't hurt NASCAR, and a little bad blood could really liven up an otherwise slow start to the season.

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