Posted: Thursday July 22, 2010 4:14PM ; Updated: Thursday July 22, 2010 4:51PM
Tom Bowles
Tom Bowles>INSIDE NASCAR

Edwards-Keselowski feud prompts re-evaluation of 'have at it, boys'

Story Highlights

NASCAR's decision to penalize Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski angered fans

Though looking to punish Edwards, NASCAR actually helped his championship bid

Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made SI's Fortunate 50 list

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Edwards-probation.jpg
Carl Edwards received a 60-point penalty, a $25,000 fine and is on probation until Dec. 31 for an incident with Brad Keselowski at Gateway.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR

From the moment Carl Edwards rubbed Brad Keselowski's right rear Saturday night, NASCAR got spun right into a whirlwind of controversy. Let's put it this way: there have been more opinions inundating my email inbox ever since than columns focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick combined. Their contact and resulting wreck sparked a major debate over the limit of NASCAR's "Have at it, boys" policy. Enacted in January to radically scale back the penalties on aggressive driving, the policy left everyone confused over a simple but important question: how much is too much?

So with "Carl and Brad" pushing their spat to never-before-seen levels -- their latest wreck prompted Keselowski's father to claim Edwards was "trying to kill my boy" -- this week was about searching for answers. All eyes were on NASCAR officials over what, if any, penalties they would hand down in what clearly sets precedent for conflict at the Cup level. Officials extended their virtual Tuesday deadline for penalties by 24 hours, perhaps to get a better read on public perception, but if the intent was to issue a ruling that pleased the fan base, the verdict seems to have had the exact opposite effect. Now, everyone on all sides has been brought together in anger and frustration toward one source: NASCAR.

It's rare that a decision winds up leaving no one happy. But that's the sense I get from talking with all sides 24 hours after Edwards got socked with a 60-point penalty, $25,000 fine and probation the rest of the year from NASCAR. It's certainly got his camp surprised; supporters will be the first to point out that in turn 1 of the final lap, Keselowski's contact could have caused the situation to flip. Carl has a history of being honest immediately after exiting the race car and this time it seems to have hurt him as he admitted he went after his rival on the race track intentionally. In similar instance back in 1999, Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the final lap, causing a savage wreck on the way to nabbing the win. Afterwards, Earnhardt admitted to trying to "rattle his cage a bit. The Intimidator wasn't penalized, leaving many to wonder if this "penalty in moderation" sends a message that honesty is no longer the best policy.

The words "in between" appear to be the perfect description for this ruling, rattling Keselowski supporters looking for a fine, suspension or worse. In the end, 60 points still keeps Edwards' title hopes far within reach in that series. By spinning Keselowski out, Edwards actually gained a total of 19 points over what would have happened had his rival gone on to win, meaning the decision to wreck still helped his bid for the championship. That clouds any message the sport was trying to send to Edwards and sends additional probation Keselowski's way for his role in promoting the rivalry. With Edwards remaining in Chase contention in Cup, the ruling seemed to be another arbitrary add that protects the historically aggressive driver from enacting revenge before September, a move that would cost him a playoff spot.

But these two aren't the only ones scratching their heads over a hard-to-read decision. With point penalties and fines now back in play, drivers now must try and work within a new set of rules just six months after they were created.

"We wanted to do the right thing for the competitors and the right thing for the garage area as far as maintaining law and order," NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton said in explaining the change. "Every situation, they're never the same."

But wasn't eliminating that gray area the whole reason NASCAR came up with this rule in the first place? The way I see it, now there will be no penalties for aggressive driving unless A) The fans don't like it and B) it crosses some sort of imaginary line. Well, what's that line and how will it be defined? Every contact-based situation is subjective, the same argument that caused NASCAR drivers to protest and eventually eliminate bumpdrafting rules at Talladega and Daytona.

It's why for every Kevin Harvick claiming Edwards stepped over the line, there's other drivers quietly mumbling their support for the other side. Elliott Sadler and Martin Truex Jr. are arguing Jeff Gordon "crossed the line" at Infineon, wrecking five drivers including what would have ruined both of their season-best days on the road course. But Gordon got nothing, not even probation, in a move that had them initially thinking on-track revenge is the only option to get even. But now, is that even allowed? This penalty could become a sticking point inside the back of their heads, knowing any type of contact could be subjected to scrutiny -- every bump-and-run has the best intentions that could turn into a tragic ending. That means we're faced with the epitome of "Have at it, boys" with strings attached, and you know how NASCAR fans feel about subjective calls.

At the same time, you could argue neither side was egregiously hurt by this compromise. When has NASCAR ever made the jump from probation to suspension? If the sport was trying to teach either one a lesson, a pocket change fine combined with minimal impact to their championship battle won't do the trick. So instead of taking a stand here, all Daytona Beach officials seemed to do was muck up the water even more. That's the last thing NASCAR needed on an off week, acting indecisively on a landmark decision that should have gone crystal clear either way.

Check back on Friday for Brad Keselowski's bi-weekly diary with SI.com.

BOWLES BITS

- Speaking of the Nationwide Series, teams were told in private meetings this week a change to keep Cup drivers from competing for a championship there is virtually assured for 2011. The most likely idea will be a hard cap on the amount of races drivers can compete in elsewhere in NASCAR if they're inside the top-35 in Cup points, rigidly defining a sort of minor-to-major league system. But another interesting option being discussed is making six races on the schedule virtually impossible for Cup drivers to travel to, either putting them on the same day at different tracks or creating more standalone races over 2,000 miles apart each weekend. If that's on the table, chances are the Cup side of the schedule could undergo serious changes for next year as well. Stay tuned.

- SI's Fortunate 50 list came out yesterday, with only three NASCAR drivers on the list. Of note, all three: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are employed by Hendrick Motorsports. Some have called Hendrick the New York Yankees of NASCAR after adding the sport's Most Popular Driver and forming a four-car superteam in 2008. There's just one important difference: they don't have any type of luxury tax or revenue-sharing agreement to help other teams competing against them. That imbalance between rich and poor is one of the biggest obstacles facing the sport today and in the future. Sure, the sport has parity; the rich are all really rich and the poor are all really poor. Where's NASCAR's middle class?

- Speaking of Hendrick, resigning with Quaker State this week takes Mobil 1 off the list as a possible sponsor for Jeff Gordon. I still hear everything from Wal-Mart to Pepsi, but one thing is clear: his 2011 sponsorship search is holding up Kasey Kahne's future. It's hard to get one deal done when your four-time series champion is still sitting there without funding for next year.

 
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