Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images for NASCAR

Can Carl Edwards Resist Brad Keselowski's Temptation?

One more strike.

Carl Edwards now has two strikes against him in his ongoing feud with Brad Keselowski.

First was the highly-publicized incident this past spring in the Sprint Cup race in Atlanta, when Edwards' banzai move put Keselowski's car first hard into the fence and then onto its roof.

Second was this past Saturday's confrontation in the Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Raceway in suburban St. Louis.

Both times, Edwards admitted he intentionally hit Keselowski's car on purpose: in Atlanta as payback for an earlier incident in the race, and to prevent Keselowski from winning at Gateway.

Meanwhile, Edwards merrily motored on in both instances.

What strikes me as odd is Edwards must have some type of selective memory. For it was just last year at Talladega that he himself was a victim of Keselowski's wrath. Edwards went up into the catchfence, while Keselowski went on to victory lane – a situation that, while much less worse in impact, was similar nonetheless at Gateway.

Several people got hurt in that incident at 'Dega, and had it not been for a bit of good luck and fate, Edwards could have sailed through that catchfence and done a lot more damage to both himself and the crowd.

Still, the battle between Edwards and Keselowski has continued unabated since then.

So NASCAR on Wednesday put both drivers on probation (they both received minimal and non-effective three-race probation sentences after the Atlanta incident earlier this year) until the end of the year, fined Edwards $25,000 and 60 Nationwide Series driver points – further increasing Brad's lead in the standings over him – and also penalized team owner Jack Roush with a loss of 60 owner points.

Is that going to stop the Carl-Brad feud? Not a chance. Somehow, some way, you know this battle royale is far from over. It could very easily flare up once again Saturday night at O'Reilly Raceway Park, or Sunday a few miles down the road at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Or maybe Bristol or Watkins Glen, places where close racing has a more special and unique meaning unto itself that at most any other racetrack on the circuit – particularly with us being in the seven-race home stretch of the so-called "Race to the Chase."

Granted, this is the year of "have at it, boys," where NASCAR has all but given drivers carte blanche to do what they want – supposedly within reason. At the beginning of the season, NASCAR chairman Brian France said the sanctioning body would allow drivers to supposedly "police themselves" and see if things got measurably out of hand.

Well, so far, the "have at it, boys" mantra has brought excitement and attention to the sport, and either increased long-term rivalries between drivers or started new ones. Thus far, 95 percent of the drivers have maintained a semblance of respect for both the sport and each other, gladly accepting NASCAR's challenge to "have at it, boys," while also having enough common sense not to turn NASCAR into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

But somewhere, Keselowski and Edwards just haven't gotten it. Sure, you can still have a rivalry – and admittedly, fans seem to have enjoyed their bitter feud, wondering when would be the next time the two would tangle.

Yet when you admit you're intentionally wrecking a competitor to either gain an advantage or hurt the other guy on purpose (not to mention the chance of hurting other innocent drivers who get caught up in the resulting mess, like what happened Saturday at Gateway), that far exceeds the "have at it, boys" concept and directive.

That's why I started this column off with the phrase, "one more strike."

NASCAR is giving Edwards primarily, and Keselowski secondarily, just enough rope to hang themselves. Right now, it would appear Edwards has more rope. He's caused his own problems; let him cause his own ultimate punishment. That seems to be NASCAR's logic. That's why Edwards was slapped ever so lightly on the hand when the punishment came down Wednesday.

It was the calm before the storm, if another Edwards' action warrants an even stiffer punishment.

I admit I originally didn't see all that much wrong with what Edwards did at Gateway, at least compared to other incidents he's been involved in, particularly with Keselowski. But after pondering what happened for the last few days, I've come to the conclusion that Edwards is a marked man – of his own doing.

No matter how much Edwards tries to stay within NASCAR's probationary confines, he's a racer first and foremost. And racers don't let themselves stay within confines.

And for that matter, Keselowski, who has shown a significant amount of restraint since Saturday's incident, is probably purring like a content kitten, knowing that if he goads Edwards just enough, Edwards is probably going to react – or would that be overreact -- and not in the best way.

Probation violated. Problem solved. Edwards gets parked for a race and Keselowski sails on to the Nationwide Series championship in a virtual solo run.

Or, in the Sprint Cup Series, Edwards' chances of making the Chase could be significantly diminished if he allows himself to bite if Keselowski offers him a proverbial poisonous apple.

Edwards is currently a shaky 10th in the Cup standings right now, with seven races left to solidify his spot in the Chase – which he finished a poor 11th in last season after ending up runner-up to Jimmie Johnson the year before (2008).

What's more, Edwards is just 59 points ahead of 12th-ranked Clint Bowyer. No one would be happier if Edwards missed the Chase by his own doing than Keselowski, who has no statistical chance of making the so-called 10-race playoffs.

That's why Edwards is going to have to learn to control the pleasure he takes at banging into Keselowski. He's going to have to control his temper and emotions.

And, I dare say, he's going to have to realize that if a situation arises again where the two drivers are battling for the same real estate, it might be the smarter thing for Edwards to let Keselowski get a free pass this time – even if it goes totally against the motivation of what racers race for.

For if he incites something with Keselowski, Edwards stands to lose much more than just losing a race to his arch-rival. He stands to miss at least one race on the sidelines, maybe even more. Hell, if I was in Carl's shoes and I had to make a choice between finishing second or sitting out a race as punishment for yet another skirmish with Keselowski, I'll take runner-up every time.

Other drivers have been in similar situations over the years, either being the protagonist or antagonist. But very few have let their emotions and lack of better judgment get the better of them in the most intense heat of the moment to where NASCAR has had to sit them for a race or longer.

No one wants to be parked. Sure, they may push the envelope as far as they can, and that's the place where Edwards is at today, in my opinion.

Edwards more so, and Keselowski to a lesser extent, have taken "have at it, boys" a bit too literal. Unless they both learn to contain themselves, particularly Cousin Carl, NASCAR can very easily change its tune from "have at it, boys" to "have a seat, boys."

And then they'll have no one to blame about what happens but themselves.

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