Now that the boys indeed have "had at it," NASCAR has a problem.

In the aftermath of Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the sanctioning body must decide to what extent it will discipline driver Carl Edwards for intentionally, blatantly and unabashedly wrecking Brad Keselowski on the 323rd lap of what was supposed to be a 325-lap race.

"Boys, have at it and have fun," vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said during the off-season, coining a phrase that quickly became the mantra of NASCAR's new laissez-faire attitude toward its competitors.

Embargos against bump-drafting were lifted, holes in restrictor plates were widened to provide more horsepower at plate tracks, and drivers were encouraged to settle their differences on the asphalt. The term "self-policing" was bandied about ad nauseam.

The tack NASCAR would take was clearly evident during championship weekend last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, long before Pemberton's off-the-cuff remark would become the new watchwords of the sport.

In the Nationwide Series season finale, Denny Hamlin spun Keselowski, as he had promised to do a week earlier at Phoenix, where the drivers had traded shots on the racetrack. Hamlin, who had gotten the short end of the exchange at Phoenix was docked a lap at Homestead for the altercation.

The following day, in the final Sprint Cup race, Tony Stewart knocked Juan Pablo Montoya into the wall between turns three and four. Montoya spent the next 27 laps plotting his revenge, while his car was repaired in the garage area. He returned to the track and spun Stewart.

Because Keselowski and Stewart spun harmlessly, NASCAR treated both incidents with a wink and a nod. No harm, no foul. "Boys, have at it, and have fun."

On Sunday at Atlanta, however, Keselowski wasn't as lucky. To the accompaniment of an audible, collective gasp from the main grandstand, Keselowski's #12 Dodge flipped over, slammed into the outside wall in the tri-oval, landed on its roof on the driver's side, righted itself and skidded into the wall in turn one.

In the process, NASCAR collected another testimonial to the safety enhancements of its new racecar. Keselowski appeared groggy and sore when he climbed from the car but otherwise none the worse for wear.

"The scary part was his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected," Edwards acknowledged after NASCAR parked him for the incident on lap 326 of what became a 341-lap race. "At the end of the day, we're out here to race and people have to have respect for one another and I have a lot of respect for people's safety.

"I wish it wouldn't have gone like it did, but I'm glad he's okay and we'll just go on and race some more and maybe him and I won't get in anymore incidents together. That would be the best thing."

There's one school of thought that suggests that the severity of Keselowski's wreck shouldn't enter into the penalty phase of NASCAR's review of the incident. Wrong.

In legal circles, there's an aphorism that goes, "Intent follows the bullet." If you fire a shot into a building and it imbeds in sheetrock, that's one thing. If it kills someone, it's quite another.

The bottom line is that Edwards is responsible not only for the intended consequences of his actions but also for those that were unintended and unexpected. NASCAR, too, is complicit in what only can be viewed as a predictable outcome of a lenient attitude toward aggression on the racetrack.

Against a backdrop where any discipline will be perceived, at least in some quarters, as backtracking from the have-at-it-boys mentality, NASCAR must determine a fair punishment for Edwards. The severity of the wreck demands it.

Here's a suggestion: Since Keselowski was running sixth when Edwards launched him, dock Edwards the 95-point difference between sixth and 36th, where Keselowski finished. And since monetary fines in the $50,000 range aren't that meaningful to the stars of the sport, let Roger Penske send Edwards and his car owner, Jack Roush, the bill for the wrecked racecar.

On second thought, you can also bill Edwards and Roush for the wrecked racecars of Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland and Martin Truex Jr., since Edwards' retaliation against Keselowski also launched a sequence of events that extended the race 16 laps beyond its posted distance.

During the first of two subsequent attempts at green-white-chequered-flag restarts, the cars of those seven drivers crashed in turn two. Intent follows the bullet.

"Boys, have at it and have fun."

Just be aware that fun can come with a hefty price tag.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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