Sunday's pit crew brawl between the Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne teams after the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway was just the latest installment of a long-running feature: Big Time Racing meets Big Time Wrestling.
After Stewart pushed his car into Kahne, who was leading the race at the time, and sent him crashing into the wall, tempers spiked and the jostling and rasslin' followed. Kahne's crew charged down pit road to confront the Stewart boys, and the spicy dialogue quickly escalated into a scrum. It looked like Speed Channel programming had been pre-empted by a Texas cage match from the World Wrestling Federation.
NASCAR, which is in the business of staging races and making money, did its best Pontius Pilate imitation and quickly washed its hands of the whole affair.
"We've determined that was a racing incident and nothing more," NASCAR manager of communications Herb Branham said of the on-track incident. "If there were going to be any penalties because of that incident, they would have been called during the event."
A few piddly fines were doled out for the pit-crew skirmish, and that was it. For Kahne's crew chief Tommy Baldwin, who was fined $10,000 for his role in the affair, it was salt on the wounds that Stewart was not suspended.
"He was doing what he's been doing all year - driving like a moron," Baldwin said. "He gets away with that stuff all he wants, and all NASCAR does is fine him. He's got plenty of money. He needs to sit out a race. That's it."
The crash took the rookie Kahne from first in the race to 36th. Stewart, the 2002 Nextel Cup champion, won for the first time this year. Ray Evernham, the owner of Kahne's racing team, gave no indication that this latest hotspot on the racing map will cool off anytime soon. Evernham contends that Stewart needs to be taken out behind the woodshed, and he wants to wants to be the guy to administer the 40 lashes.
"I've asked over and over again if they're going to do anything about this stuff," Evernham said. "Look at what it cost this team. This could knock us out of a shot at the top 10 [in the points race], and I just can't believe nothing has been done about it. He definitely should be suspended, and he should have his [rear end] beat. If he doesn't get suspended, maybe I'll do that."
Stewart, who has a laundry list of fines and probations on his racing resume, tried to distance himself from the fray. He was alternately innocent, dumbfounded, and smug.
"I wish I knew what happened," Stewart said. "When I make a mistake, I tell you I make a mistake. But whatever happened, I didn't do it. I can't control all 43 cars out there. And the last time I checked, we were here doing auto racing, not boxing."
Veteran driver Dale Jarrett, who finished third in Sunday's race, said disputes are to be expected.
"You're going to have tempers flaring," Jarrett said. "The competition's tight, and there's a lot at stake out here. When somebody puts up the money Nextel has put up for a championship, everybody's racing hard. You're going to have some hard feelings along the way."
Darrell Waltrip, who works as a television commentator after a lengthy racing career, said the competitive fire sometimes gets the better of emotions.
"When I look at great drivers do dumb things, they get a bigger reaction because you know they can do better," Waltrip said. "I'm a very emotional guy, too. Sometimes, I let my emotions affect my judgments. But I'm not making any excuses."
Fisticuffs have been a regular part of racing for some time. Stewart reached inside Brian Vickers' car in the garage area after a race in California earlier this summer, and threw an open-fisted punch at the rookie. Stewart, upset over an incident on the track, had to be physically restrained by Vickers' crew. He was fined $50,000 and lost 25 championship points - essentially an insignificant penalty for a multi-millionaire driver.
These affairs have a tendency to simmer under the surface, sometimes for years, then erupt again and again. Stewart had bumped Kahne at Darlington in March, leading some to believe that Sunday's well-timed tap was hardly accidental.
Jimmy Spencer had an incident with Kurt Busch at Bristol two years ago, and then took Busch into the wall at the Brickyard. Last year at Michigan International Speedway, Spencer took exception to a close encounter with Busch, and bloodied his nose after the race.
At Richmond last September, Ricky Rudd knocked Kevin Harvick out of contention late in the race after Harvick had been running up front all day. In a post-race melee, Harvick and his crew members jumped on the hood of Rudd's car and used it like a trampoline. Harvick was fined $35,000 and placed on probation for hitting Rudd's car and using foul language on television.
Stewart hinted at regret over the latest incident, but gave no indication the matter is closed.
"I am disappointed that it had to end in controversy, but I didn't do anything wrong, and NASCAR said I didn't do anything wrong," Stewart said. "We didn't cheat, and we had the fastest car and won it fair and square, so it is what it is."
What it is, is far from over.
The Blade's wire services contributed to this report.
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