On-track incidents during the Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night spilled over onto pit lane and ended up sparking a post-race altercation involving Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
The race had been a high-stakes affair for all three drivers who are battling to get through to the third phase of the 2014 Chase for this year's championship. While battling for the lead during a late restart, Kenseth and Keselowski had made contact which Kenseth emphatically blamed on Keselowski. He retaliated later in the race, and the spat cost both drivers any chance that they might have had of winning the race and securing the all-important race win that would have automatically kept them in the title play-offs.
"On the restart I just rolled outside of him in the dog leg and he knew I was there and just ran me out of room and ran me into the wall because he didn't want to get passed," Kenseth complained. "I shouldn't have went there, but there was a lot of guys that you can race like that and they know you're there and they will give you the room and he's usually one of them. He did it on purpose and just ran me into the wall because he didn't want to get passed."
Keselowski remembered this original incident differently. "I think the #20 car got in back of me on one of the restarts, it was just a racing deal and I wasn't mad at him," he explained later. "But when the last yellow came out he got the wavearound and when he came by he swung at my car and tore the whole right-front off of it. When we restarted fifth with no right-front on it, we fell all the way back to 16th and it ruined our day. That gave us a big Chase hurt."
Denny Hamlin was also furious with Keselowski, after a clash between the pair during a subsequent restart two laps from the end of the race. "There's a corner there so you have to back off and he just ploughed into us. He's just out of control," Hamlin fumed. "We've lost six spots or so with the last restart when he ran into us and knocked us up the track.
The situation got only more out of hand once the chequered flag came out, with Keselowski making a retaliatory strike on Hamlin's car, and then hitting the cars of Kenseth and Tony Stewart when he got to pit road.
“I see him trying to wreck Denny in the middle of the corner,” Kenseth said. "I'm trying to get back to pit road and we're all the way on pit road with pedestrians and people with their helmets off and everything, and he comes in there 30 miles an hour faster than me and just annihilates my car, runs me into Tony."
"Matt was nearly out of his car," described Hamlin. "He just ploughed into Matt and then ran into Tony and then went in through the garage and cleared out transmissions and did burnouts in the garage. Just acting like a dumbass instead of a champion."
Hamlin tried to confront Keselowski but was stopped and pulled away before he could do so, although he still managed to throw a towel at Keselowski's head as he left. However it was a different situation with Kenseth, who hunted Keselowski down in the paddock between the team haulers and appeared to take a swing at him before getting the Penske driver in a headlock, after which the two drivers were finally separated by team members and race officials.
"I went after him because I don't want to get hurt or killed on pit road," a livid Kenseth explained later. "Everybody is vulnerable there ... He could have put something through my door and I could be going to the hospital right now because he's an idiot.
“If he wants to wreck me on the racetrack, that's one thing,” Kenseth continued. "He's already done it three times this year. He's good at it. But when you're on pit road after the race, and cars aren't running and people are standing there and your belts are off and stuff with everything that's been going on, there's just no excuse for that.
"I had my HANS [head-and-neck-system protective device] off and my seat belts off, and he clobbers me," he added. "If he wants to come and talk about it like a man then go do that, but to try to wreck somebody on the race track and to come down pit road with other cars and people standing around with my seat belts off and drive into the side of me is just inexcusable. There is no excuse for that. He's a champion and he's supposed to know better than that ... Yeah, I'm mad."
"When you see Matt Kenseth mad enough to fight, you know that this is intense because that's way out of character for him," race winner Kevin Harvick commented from the sidelines. "Every moment matters in this Chase, and Matt Kenseth knew that that one particular moment could have been the end of his Chase."
"I have never seen him that mad," agreed Jeff Gordon, who finished the race in second place. "Obviously, there's some built up animosity towards Brad ... I better hold the rest of my thoughts!"
Of course, Keselowski had his own view of what had gone down. "After the race the #11 stopped in front of me and tried to pick a fight,” Keselowski said. “I don't know what that was all about and he swung and hit at my car, so I figured if we're going to play car wars under yellow and after the race, I'll join too.
"The #20 car and the #11 car both hit me under yellow and once the race was over I hit them back and they couldn't take it," Keselowski continued. "I gave it back to them and now they want to fight, so I don't know what's up with that."
As for Keselowski's clash with Stewart, that appeared to be a genuine side accident as a result of the hot-headed antics happening elsewhere.
"I rubbed into [Kenseth] and I think he gassed up and ran into Tony, and I don't think Tony knew what was going on so he's probably upset and he has every right to be," Keselowski explained. "I'm sure when he sees the whole situation he'll understand."
Stewart certainly didn't appear to see it Keselowski's way at the time: he backed his car up and promptly crumpled the front of Keselowski's Ford, which will be a costly repair for the Penske squad.
Keselowski himself was subsequently called to the NASCAR hauler after the race along with crewmen from Kenseth's team. Officials for the sanctioning body will review audio and video of all the incidents before determining whether any mid-week penalties are warranted: while on-track clashes are usually treated as hands-off matters under NASCAR's 'Boys, have at it' policy, dangerous driving and fistfights on pit lane have tended in the past to generate a no-nonsense stiff rebuke for bringing the series into disrepute.
As for whether things will simmer down before the next Cup race at Talladega or whether there will be more fireworks in store next weekend, the odds seem firmly stacked toward the latter option.
"He's desperate obviously and it's either four or five of us are wrong or he's wrong because he's pissed off everyone," Hamlin said. "We'll do what we have to do to get in and that's the big picture. Luckily, it didn't cause us to wreck. If it would have caused us to wreck, I'd be waiting for him right now.
"My guess is that he will probably try to wreck everyone [at Talladega]," he predicted. "That's his only shot. He'll just be out of control like normal."
And if that doesn't have 'Big One' written all over it, then what does?