5:46 PM EST, November 13, 2012
If image is everything, NASCAR has a problem.
Or maybe not.
I'm as conflicted as anyone else trying to connect the dots to logic in the post-race aftermath of those shenanigans at Phoenix.
Why is Jeff Gordon still in the starting grid for the series finale at Homestead this weekend after the havoc he caused in Phoenix? Is it because he is a classy four-time champion with no record of retaliatory paybacks? Or is it because NASCAR wanted to set up the drama of Jeff Gordon-Clint Bowyer: Retribution Day, with or without the HANS device?
Why on earth did Brad Keselowski get docked 25 grand for tweeting a picture form Phoenix when he has sent out tweets from races three other times without repercussions? Was it because it was finally sticking to Rule 20-6.7A, which bans drivers from keeping electronics of any sort in the car? Or was it because of his profane post-race rant addressing the nonsense between Gordon and Bowyer?
You can say this controversy is good for business because there's not much drama left in the Chase unless Keselowski makes a mistake or gets popped. The championship is his if he finishes 15th or higher, even if Johnson leads the race and leads the most laps.
The Gordon-Bowyer mayhem — started by Bowyer bumping into Gordon's car and followed by Gordon's deliberate retaliation — is certainly part of the old-school business model. Dale Earnhardt rose to iconic status by wrecking anybody who got in his way.
NASCAR has evolved since then, and some would say not in a good way. Attendance is down at many tracks, as fans have been turned off by the homogenous spin of things. The Gordon-Bowyer scuffle certainly perked up considerable interest, even from casual fans, and that is good.
Is this why NASCAR looked the other way? You have to ask the question because there are a bunch of people out there wondering how the heck Gordon got a free pass this Sunday.
"The image and integrity of the sport has to be protected and NASCAR has the responsibility to do that," FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip said.
I know Waltrip's credibility on this issue may appear shaky because his brother Michael is Bowyer's team owner. But the point is valid, and echoed elsewhere.
"Some lines were crossed that cannot be tolerated," Terry Blount wrote on ESPN.com. "NASCAR can't allow a mob mentality where an angry pit crew attacks another team's driver, as Bowyer's crew did on Gordon."
And so mob mentality and pitchforks it is, race fans.
NASCAR's business model now skews toward WWE as all the heroes and villains roll into South Florida for the final showdown.
As one fan wrote me in an email: "Maybe NASCAR is being light on the punishment for a reason. Bad publicity will get more people tuning in next week to see what happens. Maybe it's just all staged drama like pro wrestling."
I've got Gordon over Bowyer by a body-slam, and an upset victory for Johnson after NASCAR disqualifies Keselowski for having a rotary phone in his car.
Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress are sharing an awkward moment for a while. Think of them as an estranged couple: The divorce papers have been filed, but nobody has packed up and left just yet. The thing is, the awkward moment will last an entire year.
That's how long it will take Harvick to move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing. Nothing is quite official yet, but the comments from the two parties involved eliminates any guesswork.
"We can all talk about what's going to happen in 2014," Harvick said after winning in Phoenix last weekend. "We have 2012, we have 2013, and regardless of what happens on a business side of things, Richard Childress and myself will always be friends, good or bad, and may agree to disagree, but we still have a lot of racing left to do and we owe it to our sponsors and our company to go out and do exactly what we did today and be men and do the best we can for everybody."
"It's a business decision," Childress aid. "This is a business sport."
This should be a smooth transition for Harvick, who has driven for Childress throughout his 12-year career, starting under the most trying of circumstances: He replaced Dale Earnhardt following Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Harvick is good friends with Tony Stewart, so the switch makes sense from that perspective.
As for Childress, he won't have to look hard for replacements. Childress' grandsons — Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon and Camping World Truck Series driver Ty Dillon — are being groomed for Cup rides, and Austin should be in line for a Cup ride in 2014.
But there is still some concern about the talent that has left the building. Clint Bowyer left to join Michael Waltrip Racing after RCR could not secure a sponsorship at the end of last season.
Childress Racing has not won a Cup title since 1994.
Kyle to stay?
Kyle Busch is another top driver would could be on the move, although J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, wants no part of that.
"I feel good that we'll get it all together,'' J.D. Gibbs said at Phoenix last weekend. ""I'm not going to say anything official, but we feel good about it.''
Busch is entering the last year of his contract in 2013. Any speculation that he might go to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 went belly up after Harvick's commitment.
NASCAR will have a lot more than left-handed turns to offer up this weekend as its version of Super Bowl week (apologies to Daytona) heads to South Florida.
Recording artists Daughtry and Frankie J will perform in the third annual NASCAR Championship DriveTM festival Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m. at Lummus Park on South Beach. The event is free.