Posted: Wednesday November 10, 2010 12:12AM ; Updated: Wednesday November 10, 2010 12:12AM
Tom Bowles
Tom Bowles>INSIDE NASCAR

Fans weigh in on Gordon-Burton brawl, Kyle Busch's temper, more

Story Highlights

Denny Hamlin powered through adversity to take on a leadership role at JGR

It's not likely fans will see a repeat performance from Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton

No matter how competitive the Chase is, fans just aren't satisfied with the format

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Kyle-Busch-penalty.jpg
Kyle Busch's fiery personality has often worked against him, most recently with a $25,000 fine at Texas.
Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR

When I was a kid, reading Highlights magazine proved the one brief reprieve of any visit to a doctor's office, dentist or long trip where the radio or Nintendo wasn't an option. One must-read back then was always a cartoon, Goofus and Gallant, that drew laughs while doubling as a teaching tool by contrasting a smart, neat, organized kid with the one who always did everything wrong. In one famous comic, Goofus "bosses his friends," while Gallant asks them, "What do you want to do next?" In almost every instance, Gallant was portrayed as the winner, balancing the maturity and kindness we hope even grownups can appreciate and emulate.

So as the sun settled over NASCAR Sunday night, deep in the heart of Texas, my mind couldn't help but drift over to that cartoon. In one corner you had Denny Hamlin, reaching his full potential through a calm, steady confidence to help the No. 11 team overcome adversity. During a Chase in which he's qualified 17th or worse in five out of the eight Chase races, the driver has never lost his cool in clawing his way through the pack with patience, not panic. There have been plenty of other instances, too, when flying off the handle would have been perfectly justified: dropping from the pole to 15th with an equalized tire at Martinsville; losing the draft and falling a lap down at Talladega; throwing up the white flag six months ago when what would be season-ending ACL surgery for other athletes left him unable to walk right for days. Instead, this soon-to-be 30-year-old learned the road map to becoming an adult, choosing to take the high road and, in the process, earning a leadership role of respect so desperately needed at the youngest of NASCAR's multi-car outfits: Joe Gibbs Racing.

Compare that to Kyle Busch, whose actions Sunday may have necessitated an unfair penalty, but whose ability to channel the worst of Goofus continues to be the source of his downfall. Busch hits the wall, and it's never his fault behind the wheel: it's the crew for giving him improper adjustments. Busch speeds off pit road, like at Texas and it's NASCAR's fault for targeting him with electronic (not manual) scoring. And if it's not NASCAR, it's the crew, failing in fixing the car by keeping him on pit road too long even though it's the driver, not the repairmen, who spun out on the race track. Add in Saturday's griping in the Nationwide race about Carl Edwards jumping a double-file restart, and a book filled of this season's excuses could fill a whole chapter on last weekend alone. But it's par for the course for NASCAR's Mr. America who never quite learned the sportsmanship of finishing runner-up. Place second, and instead of accepting the role of first loser, Kyle calls everyone losers around him, the competitive fire burning the self-esteem of those around him.

Years ago, that was Hamlin, too, hitting a low point in fighting with respected NASCAR veteran Kyle Petty after the two tangled at Dover in 2007. Throughout '08 and '09, his emotions were a visible roller coaster, a fragile confidence shattered with the hint of a DNF while he learned the consequences of racing purely from the heart. But by 2010, a man whose adversity this year includes a "secret" fine from NASCAR for tweeting his feelings has learned the hard poker rule of "knowing when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em." Speaking his mind does not dictate where he finishes on Sunday, for "Gallant" knows when and how to rein those emotions in at the right time.

Sure, a penalty for a middle finger is a topic for another time, perhaps a tad too far in forcing an aggressive personality to wake up and turn it down a notch. But Busch would do well to sit back, calm down and take a look this week at how the possible 2010 Sprint Cup champion handles things. For I don't ever remember a Highlights comic in which Goofus came out a winner in the end.

See? Six hundred words into the mailbag and we haven't even talked about the Jeff Gordon -- Jeff Burton fight. But that's because your emails do most of the talking for me. Don't forget, to get your name in print tbowles81@yahoo.com or @NASCARBowles on Twitter is the way to start a mini-controversy of your own.

We'll start with the fight heard 'round NASCAR Nation this week, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Some fans weren't exactly that impressed ...

Don't know where you are from, but from where I sit that was just a shoving match. I am retired, 68 years old and I promise I could whip either one of those two, maybe both. Just slays me when a little kiddie play gets blown way out of proportion!
-- J.G. Sanders, Kentucky

If you call that a fist fight you haven't ever seen one.
-- FeatherRiverDan

First of all, it always disturbs me when fans feel like drivers "didn't fight hard enough." What do you want both sides to do, draw blood? We're dealing with racing, not heavyweight boxing, so to me any type of pushing and shoving between two drivers is a pretty serious fight. "Boys, have at it" isn't supposed to lead to people knocking each other out cold by throwing punches. And if old-fashioned brawls are what we need to get people watching, where someone ends up in the hospital, you could count me out as a supporter of what's been a positive policy for NASCAR.

That's not to say Gordon hasn't had his share of run-ins through the years. A man not afraid to get aggressive when pushed, Gordon's shoving incident with Matt Kenseth is well-documented, while an old garage story in which he sucker punched Mike Bliss after a 2005 Chicagoland wreck -- repeatedly denied by both parties, even though Bliss showed up with a black eye the following race -- is still talked about. As I wrote about Sunday, I feel like this latest Gordon scuffle between the two was borne out of the same type of emotion the previous two were: frustration over a season that hasn't panned out as expected. But that's an angle Burton adamantly denied during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters:

"Jeff and I have spoken [since Sunday's incident]," he said. "We had a great conversation. We ended up laughing a little bit about some of the things that were said and some of the things that were done. And Jeff and I are moving forward."

"I believe that he knows that we both had frustrating years. And there's no way that the frustration that the both of us -- and I don't want to bad talk about Jeff. Let me be clear about that. But the two of us, collectively, the frustrations we had didn't play a role in all of that. For the part that I played in it, and I played the largest part in it, because I was the car that was second in line and the guy that was first in line got wrecked. So I had to take the ultimate responsibility for that. But I can assure everybody that there is no way that I would turn somebody driver-side first into the wall. That is malicious and that's not just how I am."

So what did happen during that fateful Turn 2 wreck on Sunday? The circumstances surrounding it were just bizarre, considering the caution had already come out for Martin Truex, Jr.'s wreck and both Chevys locked together in a horrible physics accident that led to one of the hardest driver's-side hits we've seen all year. Whether you buy Burton's story from Sunday, where he claims the two made contact two turns earlier because he "couldn't see" with the setting sun, is your call. But as expected, one of NASCAR's elder statesmen has been nothing but classy in taking full responsibility for the incident and admitting Gordon had every right to physically try and gang-tackle him afterwards. Considering the reputation of these two, I'd be shocked to see any type of retribution or even hard-nosed racing between the competitors going forward.

But hey, it was sure fun to watch while it lasted, right?

After watching the treatment and lack of respect that Gordon gets from his so-called teammate, if anyone thinks I'm going to be cheering for Johnson just because he's driving an HMS car, they can think again. I was at Martinsville and was having a tough time not going ballistic when I watched the No. 24 let the No. 48 in time after time while the 48 just blocked him out on the outside if the positions were reversed. Personally, I hope that Gordon did hang the 48 out at the end without a "helper" at the Alabama lottery. Johnson deliberately wrecked Gordon at one of the plate tracks earlier in the season. I'd really like to see the ticked off Jeff Gordon that I saw earlier in the season, rather than the poster boy for HMS team orders.
-- Regina Spence, Chesterfield, N.J.

Hey Regina, how must you feel today if you're Jeff Gordon? At Martinsville two-and-a-half weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson treated you like dirt on the track -- again -- even though you made it a point to let the man in line under any circumstances. At Talladega a week-and-a-half ago, you were asked to be Johnson's dignified assistant, drafting with him up through the pack because no one else would dare get caught working with the reigning four-time champ. And now, your seven-man pit crew has been summoned over to work with the No. 48, while you get the scraps of a struggling crew that apparently wasn't good enough for the lone Hendrick driver in title contention?

I can't imagine a clearer statement that Gordon is no longer the top dog within an organization he helped grow into a racing powerhouse. And here's the sad reality: he may never rise up to that position again. How could that not frustrate you? How could you not be burning with anger on the inside, no matter how much of a financial boost you get from a title as Johnson's co-owner? I've been waiting for Gordon to snap like he did on Sunday, for good reason. And if this three-year slump turns into a fourth, guess what -- I think we haven't seen anything yet.

I have been a NASCAR fan for 40 years. I have always enjoyed the excitement of the race, but never quite got enamored with the Chase. Let me explain. Many years ago, I was watching the last race of the season (don't remember where it was) and it was a very good, exciting race. I don't remember who won, but I do remember that there was another celebration in a different pit than the race winner. I thought at the time that was odd -- why were they so excited? Well, they had just won the overall championship, and they were celebrating!

"Big deal," I thought. They didn't win this race. This is just my opinion, and I could be mistaken, but I really believe that most fans don't care nearly as much about who wins the points championship as the owners and the drivers do. We care about who wins races. One of the beautiful things about the old system was that it allowed the drivers to race for the victory -- and not simply to drive around and avoid each other. If Dale Sr. clinched the points championship with five races to go, so what? Those last five races were going to be driven with the gloves off and that's what made us watch.

Of course I would rather have Jamie McMurray's season than Jimmie Johnson's. And I think that most race fans would agree. It is what made Tony Stewart so compelling. He drives to win (or used to). But now with the format the way it is, he is reduced to milquetoast just like the others. It has become boring. Other than Kyle Busch, who drives that way any more? Carl Edwards on occasion? Used to be, there were several who drove to win. Now we have points guys and start-and-park guys. NASCAR continues to lose fans. Seems to me there is a connection there.

As for the tracks -- I like the short tracks and the road courses, Daytona and Indy, and for some strange reason, Atlanta. If you want to change the plate conundrum, change the engines. You can do things to lower the horsepower of the engine, which will drop the speed, and allow the drivers to race. I know that sounds exactly like the plate, but I'm talking about c.i.d., or bore and stroke, etc. If I drive Talladega in my personal car, I won't need a restrictor plate to lessen my speed. Put smaller engines in the cars. Then let them drive the wheels off of them.
-- Dan McLaughlin, Detroit, Mich.

The smaller engine idea has been floated in the past, Dan, but shot down because of overall cost. NASCAR doesn't want teams spending extra cash to put together motors and other parts for what works out to just one-quarter of the Sprint Cup schedule per year.

Of course, the irony in all that huffing and puffing is that teams are already building specialty restrictor plate programs anyway. So what harm is there in coming up with another specialized way to cut back speed? I just don't get it.

As for your other comments ... we've been there, done that in this mailbag. But I do find it interesting the Texas ratings, with the championship tightening, aren't down as much compared to the first half of the Chase, a 16 percent decline compared to 25, showing that a small trickle of fans can't turn away as long as this playoff format remains competitive. But I firmly believe a large portion of this decline is due to fans protesting the Chase, period, and no matter how competitive it becomes I don't think the vast majority of those people are going to change their minds.

The problem I see with NASCAR is the dominance of three or four huge teams. Only 10 or 12 drivers are likely to win and the other 20 or so are just wasting gas and getting in the way.

The second thing is that fewer drivers are racing to win during the season. A consistent top 10 is better for making the Chase than trying for a win and wrecking. That is pretty much true in the Chase also. Leaders can't afford a DNF. So there isn't any aggressive driving -- very boring!

And now the Cup guys are ruining the Nationwide series. Top-3 drivers are Cup teams. Let the Cup drivers race in Nationwide, but don't let them win the championship.
-- Dan Troy, Albuquerque, N.M.

Unfortunately, Dan, the latest rumor mill has Cup drivers being able to run all the races in Nationwide without being able to win a championship. What type of solution is that? The Cup guys could embarrass the series, still winning 30 out of 35 races while the Nationwide guys contending for the title are busy running 11th. Who the heck wants to watch a title race between a group of 11th-place guys?

One interesting counterpoint to your DNF argument, though. Hamlin, in the final laps at Texas, got himself into a precarious position with Matt Kenseth. While the No. 17 was trying to take the lead, Kenseth could have easily taken both drivers out and wrecked the Hamlin's chances for the title. Hamlin never backed off, to his credit, but you wonder if a system where a punishment that severe for a driver fighting for the win is the right one. In the end, it all worked out for NASCAR, but how different would the conversation be if that wreck caused Hamlin to wind up 30th, allowed Jimmie Johnson to hold onto the point lead and made Kenseth a scapegoat for the next three months?

I'll let you sit on that hypothetical for a minute. And finally, our out of left field email of the week ...

Enjoyed your Texas article. Stopped watching and supporting NASCAR because of Carl Edwards trying to hurt other drivers and fans, and receiving no punishment. He should banned from racing. Tired of the Busch boys' attitudes (Kyle's actions at Texas just confirm this). Helton needs to resign and someone else needs to be hired to run NASCAR. It seems more like the WWF these days than auto racing. The personalities have taken over!
-- Ron Harrison, Fla.

Seems to me if that's the case Edwards shouldn't still be on the track racing. Keselowski had a flip, Edwards has a flip on the Cup side... they've been good boys the rest of the year, so I'd say let's let bygones be bygones at this point. And as for wrestling, I don't think we're quite that bad yet but if Triple H ever steps foot inside a NASCAR car to take some laps -- I'm moving on to covering something else.

Tweet of the Week

"Went bowling with Nelly last night.. He's pretty good. He's got a new album coming out in a couple weeks. Check it out!" -- @dennyhamlin Tuesday morning, showing he's trying to stay relaxed as the Sprint Cup points leader by ... hanging out with a random rapper in a bowling alley? Whatever floats your boat, I guess...

 
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