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.