Track Smack: Was Ambrose's penalty enough?
May 01, 2014, David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com
Panel of experts look at hot topics in the world of NASCAR
RELATED: Ambrose defends Mears punch
WATCH: Drivers mix it up after race | Petty: 'No way (Ambrose) should have been fined
Official release: Ambrose, Mears penalized
Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will feature a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their take and analysis off of the action the previous week and looking ahead to this weekend's races. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna look back at the tension between some drivers at Richmond and examine whether Talladega will produce another unlikely winner.
1. NASCAR fined Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears for a scuffle Saturday at Richmond in which Ambrose punched Mears in the head. Did the Richard Petty Motorsports driver deserve a more severe punishment?
Kenny Bruce: No way. And I thought the monetary portion of the punishment was too severe. NASCAR has a right to police what takes place on the track and in the garage, but emotions are a huge part of the sport. Guys are going to get upset. And rightfully so, depending on the circumstances. Mears wasn't the only one to suffer a black eye. In my mind, NASCAR did as well.
David Caraviello: OK, I get the idea that in the post-"Boys, have at it" era, the sanctioning body is going to be a little more lenient on these things. But direct physical violence still troubles me, even with racing's rather rough-and-tumble history. Nothing against Marcos, but I would have understood had they decided to sit him for a week for his roundhouse right to Casey Mears' noggin.
Alan Cavanna: Sit him for a week? He has to be allowed to defend himself. In this case NASCAR thought Ambrose took it too far, apparently. But I think it's better they kept it to a minimal fine.
Caraviello: So Alan, mere "fly swatting" -- as Mears termed typical NASCAR fights -- might have earned less of a penalty, if one at all? I will agree, Casey did kind of antagonize things. But there's a difference between shoving a guy up against a cart (or whatever that was in the garage area) and socking him upside the head.
Bruce: I don't see a big difference in a shove and a punch. It's physical contact in either instance. That's what they should police. Not the degree. Unless, of course, a tire iron is involved. They still use those, right?
Cavanna: I was surprised when I saw a difference in the fines. Casey Mears was the clear aggressor, and I felt like Ambrose was defending himself. We talked with NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton on Wednesday, and he said the difference was Ambrose used a closed fist.
Caraviello: I push you, you hit me? You see those as equitable? Man, remind me never to fight Cavanna for the last chicken wing in the media buffet line. Listening to you guys, we might as well set up an Octagon in the middle of the garage area. Of course, give Eddie Gossage some time .... I guess the penalty to Jimmy Spencer back in the day for punching Kurt Busch -- which earned him a suspension -- influences my opinion here. Different time, evidently.
Bruce: I agree with the "well, we can't let guys run around punching one another" line of thinking, but I think using probation gets the point across. The fine itself won't change anything, and opens up another whole can of worms -- why the difference in the amount in each case?
Cavanna: Pemberton cited the "punch" rather than a "shove" as the reason for the higher fine. I'm not sure I see a difference.
Caraviello: I tell you what, Alan. You shove me, I punch you, and we'll see. Just stay away from the tire iron.
Bruce: What was Marcos expected to do? Shove back? Walk away?
Cavanna: If I shove somebody, I deserve to be punched. And stay away from my chicken wings.
2. Did Brad Keselowski have reason to be angry at Matt Kenseth for what he viewed as blocking toward the end of the race at Richmond?
Caraviello: Clearly, I do not understand the mind of the driver well enough, because here's another one I'm confused on. Listen, Brad's candor and outspokenness are a big reason why this sport is so much fun to be around. But did I miss something? What did Kenseth do that was so egregious -- besides try to win the race?
Bruce: Did Keselowski have reason? Apparently he thought so. But reverse the roles (or positions on the track) between the two, and I think Brad would have tried just as hard to keep Kenseth behind him, using whatever means necessary.
Cavanna: Brad didn't win. So on that front, I understand why he's angry. But if he believes Kenseth did something wrong, I think Brad is off-base. Kenseth was doing the same thing every good driver should and would do. The new importance on wins should make Brad even more understanding. One win changes the next four months for Kenseth, so of course he's going to do everything necessary to get that victory.
Bruce: Matt didn't run Brad up into the wall (which we've seen happen among some drivers), so I'm not sure what Brad's beef was. The frustration over a potential win slipping away at the end of a race, perhaps?
Caraviello: I think Jeff Gordon summed it up when he said "Matt was making his car super-wide, which is what you have to do to win." Especially watching it unfold live, there didn't appear to be anything particularly unfair about it. But then again, I'm sure it looks different from the driver's seat. Of course, I also don't understand why so many drivers have issues with blocking. On high-speed tracks where you can get guys hurt, maybe. But on short tracks? Maybe the former New England quarter-midget champion would disagree with me, but I don't care if you think you're faster, you're not getting by.
Cavanna: Me and my championship trophy are with you 100 percent, DC! In the closing laps, especially on a short track, no one should surprised with a driver trying to hang on to the win. We know Brad K speaks with emotion, and sometimes too quickly. Maybe we'll hear a different opinion at Talladega once cooler heads have prevailed.
Caraviello: That's the way I always raced in my day, AC. At least on PlayStation 3.
Bruce: Maybe Matt didn't use his turn signal?
Caraviello: I hear Matt left his right blinker on for the last 200 laps. That would make anyone mad!
3. David Ragan won the spring race last year at Talladega Superspeedway. Who are the leading contenders to pull an upset at the big Alabama track this time around?
Caraviello: Danica! OK, maybe she didn't have the best of Speedweeks compared to a year ago. But we all know if there's anywhere Danica Patrick is going to contend, it's going to be on a restrictor-plate track.
Cavanna: Are you serious, DC? You better back it up!
Caraviello: Don't make me go Marcos Ambrose on you, Cavanna!
Bruce: Gimme a second, need to call the King and get his take ...
Caraviello: Hold my watch! In all seriousness, you can't dismiss Danica Patrick this week. But if I were to lay betting odds ... give me Austin Dillon or Paul Menard. Remember how crazy fast those Richard Childress Racing cars were at Daytona? I could absolutely see one of those guys pulling a surprise this Sunday. Both are very capable of it.
Cavanna: In this week's Preview Show, I picked Austin Dillon. We saw the speed he had in Daytona. He had a great run in Talladega last fall (until the last lap) and I think he'll contend. Need I also mention it's the return of the No. 3 to Talladega and the week of Dale Earnhardt's birthday? The signs are there. Case closed. And Paul Menard has to shave that beard for the aero advantage. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did it this week for that reason (probably).
Caraviello: I don't know, that facial drag coefficient didn't exactly work against Junior at Daytona ....
Bruce: I was just thinking about Menard's Daytona run. The guy led laps, and you're right, the RCR cars can be beasts on plate tracks. I know it's a lot about luck there, but you've still got to have the horses under the hood. If Dillon's a prospect, and I certainly think so, then you can't dismiss Kyle Larson, either. Kid's been fast, and smart. And it seems a lot of first-time winners used to surface in the plate races.
Caraviello: Can Austin make the moves he'd need to make at the end to win? I'm not sure we know that yet. But you've got to get there, and he showed last year in Tony Stewart's car that he can be in the mix at the white flag. That last lap, though, is something else altogether.
Cavanna: Unless you're a Kenseth-like expert, it'll all come down to your last lap partner. Dillon-Menard would be hard to beat. Imagine Kurt Busch's skills helping get Danica to the finish line. A lot of options.
Bruce: You can have all the help in the world, but on the last lap, you're going to get hung out to dry, no matter who you drive for or who you've helped throughout the race. I've seen it happen too many times.
Caraviello: By the way -- Casey Mears was 10th in the Daytona 500, guys. There's your storyline -- Casey pulls the shocker, Marcos tries to congratulate him, and Mears goes after him with the new Freedom Trophy. Writes itself!