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Track Smack:

May 12, 2011, ,

Up for discussion: Harvick, Busch penalties, breakthroughs, title contenders

1. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick each received probation and a fine for their dust-up following Saturday night's race at Darlington. Did they deserve more?

David Caraviello: If I'm king of NASCAR for a day -- and let's be honest, isn't that a ridiculous notion to begin with -- both of these guys are losing points. I still don't understand the tolerance this sport has for guys throwing punches, which stands out starkly against other leagues. And as for shoving a driverless car out of the way while people are on pit road ... well, that speaks for itself. The catch would be just how many points, given the restructured system. What's a penalty now? Five? Ten? I'm not sure. But clearly, probation and a monetary fine was enough punishment in NASCAR's eyes.

Mark Aumann: Since NASCAR probation is ludicrous, the sanctioning body basically has three deterrents: fines, suspension, points. The fines they imposed on Busch and Harvick are pocket money. I don't think they deserved a suspension. But points? Yeah, they should have docked them points similar to what Clint Bowyer lost in that wreck. Still, even taking away 10 points each, Busch and Harvick are solidly in the top 10 and locks to make the Chase. So what do you do? You could sit them for the Truck race, but that hurts the track and the sponsors. It won't change the drivers any.

Bill Kimm: NASCAR didn't need to do anything more. All you have to do is take a look at our site to realize nothing needs to be done about this. This story was huge. Yes, it took away from Regan Smith's unbelievable victory, which is unfortunate, but in a time when NASCAR needs eyes on its sport, this is perfect. No one was hurt, no damage was done ... slap them on the wrist and enjoy the headlines in Dover.

David Caraviello: Now, Bill ... I know you're only an occasional guest in Smack, and it might take you a while to get re-acclimated, but ... really? Let this go because it builds awareness? Hey, I'm sure a bench-clearing brawl in baseball would give that sport great exposure, too, but not necessarily of the kind it wants or needs. And no one was hurt -- this time.

Bill Kimm: Please David, what Carl Edwards did to Brad Keselowski in Atlanta was 100 times worse than Busch and Harvick last weekend, and Edwards got a similar penalty. And I totally disagree with Mark. Bowyer's wreck was a product of him making it three-wide. The fireworks between Busch and Harvick were before and after Bowyer's crash -- not during.

Mark Aumann: I think Bowyer was a unwitting third party. It's not his fault the two guys next to him decided to play bumper cars on the last lap.

David Caraviello: If anything, the sanctioning body went relatively easy on the penalties because they've boxed themselves in. They set the bar this low with the Edwards-Keselowski feud last year, and if you're not going to hit somebody hard for flipping another driver into the air, then you're certainly not going to hit hard for what seems a lesser offense. But that doesn't mean this sort of thing needs to be almost celebrated, which seems what you're suggesting.

Mark Aumann: Well, we could argue why Edwards did or didn't get what he deserved for that, but I'd rather see NASCAR view each succeeding incident separately rather than try to rule on previous cases. Robby Gordon supposedly punched Kevin Conway at Vegas, and that's as heinous as this?

Bill Kimm: Not suggesting it needs to be celebrated, but dock them points? No way. What happened was part of the sport, much like fights in hockey. It doesn't need to be celebrated, but it doesn't need to be over-punished, either. I will say, Harvick is lucky he didn't have his shoulder ripped out of socket. Dangerous to put your arm inside a moving vehicle like that. Throw the helmet, man -- throw the helmet!

David Caraviello: There is a culture of fighting in hockey, unfortunately. It's covered in the rule book. That's a different animal. Shoot, in some sports, a guy throws a punch in competition, he's automatically done for the next game. Here, there are zero ramifications. Sure, we can say, oh, they had their helmets on, window net was up, no big deal. But then we may have had another situation earlier in the NASCAR hauler -- between two different drivers -- where that was not the case. You just do not do that.

Mark Aumann: The thing that concerns me most is the idea of a unoccupied car rolling down pit road post-race. Obviously, the long-lens camera made it appear to be more dangerous than it might have been, but there are a lot of folks streaming around that area after the checkered flag. That's a big no-no and worthy of a penalty. And what's Harvick going to do in that instance, Bill? Busch had his helmet on. You're only going to hurt your hand anyway. Seems like theatrics more than anything sometimes.

Bill Kimm: OK Mark, let's keep things in perspective here. The car did not roll down pit road. They were at the entrance of pit road and the car took a hard left into the wall. Couldn't the argument be made that Harvick should have never got out of his car with it running? I also have to agree with Kyle Petty on this one ... where were NASCAR officials? Everyone in Darlington saw this coming, why didn't officials try to stop it?

Penalties consistent

The penalties handed down to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick appear to be consistent with NASCAR's "hands off" policy.

David Caraviello: I don't disagree with that, Bill. But can they really keep so many crewmen flooding pit lane after the event? And on that subject, I'm surprised some individual crewmen weren't penalized, as well. The situation in the garage immediately afterward was U-G-L-Y. Not talking a royal rumble or anything, but a lot of harsh words and threatening actions that didn't need to be there. Again, likely too many people for a few NASCAR officials to do anything about.

Mark Aumann: It's all about the show. And the interesting thing to me, I can't think of an instance where one feud carried over to the next week, except perhaps Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison in 1979 -- when they wrecked at Rockingham -- but they both quickly claimed that was coincidental and not related to the Daytona 500 dust-up.

Bill Kimm: That's exactly right, Mark. You might not like it, but this is the new NASCAR. It will let these go up until a certain point. Allowing Jeff Gordon to walk up to Jeff Burton on the track and shove him the way he did -- that shows NASCAR is willing to let some of this happen.

David Caraviello: Guys, we're into semantics. Bottom line, you do not throw a punch. Bottom line, you do not send someone else's car into the wall when there are people around. Both actions are equally as regrettable. Both guys endangered other people. Both guys should have been penalized more than they were.

Mark Aumann: David, the tensions in the garage were probably very similar to the situation at Richmond. I was worried that the crews for Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya might go at it, but thankfully, things calmed down before it got to that point. NASCAR may need to hire some ex-bouncers.

David Caraviello: Yeah, given the close proximity between the two haulers, that was a very combustible situation. NASCAR officials did the best they could. They jumped in as soon as things started to escalate beyond trash-talking. I offered to intervene using my ancient martial arts skills, but nobody took me up on it. Too bad.

Mark Aumann: Well, drawing a picture of a karate chop doesn't exactly count, David.

Bill Kimm: Banzai, David-son

2. Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. So who's the next unheralded driver to break through into Victory Lane?

Mark Aumann: Marcos Ambrose at Sonoma. One of things that intrigues me about the new Chase wild-card rules is the idea that someone like Ambrose could sweep the two road-course races and get himself into the postseason, even though he really hasn't had much of a year so far.

Bill Kimm: If I had to put my money on anyone, I would say Paul Menard. He's close -- he really is. And he's due -- so my pick is Menard. And Aumann, the question asked for an unheralded driver. Ambrose is a favorite at every road course. Weak pick, Aumann. Weak pick.

David Caraviello: Well, there's one candidate who stands out above the rest -- A.J. Allmendinger. You can't say the guy has been close to winning a race, but he's run well enough often enough that you know he has it in him. Like Regan Smith, he's the kind of driver who can sneak into the top 10 on occasion, but needs the right set of circumstances to get over that hump and into Victory Lane.

Mark Aumann: Well, Ambrose hasn't been able to close the deal, Bill. So that's unheralded to me.

David Caraviello: And if you had to pick a place ... although A.J. has had some good showings at Dover, the Coca-Cola 600 really stands out. That race can turn into a fuel-mileage situation at the end, and situations like that are ripe for producing dark-horse winners as we saw with Casey Mears a few years back. He has to make it through 600 miles first -- no easy task -- but I wouldn't be stunned to see Allmendinger shock the world in two weeks.

Bill Kimm: I like A.J., he will win in the next year or two also. But Menard has Richard Childress Racing behind him, he's finally in great equipment, and he will get the victory sooner than later.

Mark Aumann: OK, so why does Paul Menard have a better chance of winning than, say, David Ragan, who has more lead-lap finishes and just as many top-10s?

Bill Kimm: I think they are right there with each other, but Menard has a little more experience. Let's put it this way: Menard isn't throwing the 500 away because he changed lanes before the green flag.

Mark Aumann: Seems to me Matt Kenseth did the same thing at Bristol? So not sure you can pin that on inexperience. Impatience, perhaps.

David Caraviello: Going back to Ambrose, he should have a road-course victory already -- he effectively gave away the event in Sonoma last year when he cut off his car to save fuel while leading the race. But that doesn't mean people wouldn't get excited about him winning. I think he would fit the bill of an unheralded driver pulling a surprise, although that would be more the case if he did it on an oval track. A run like the one he had earlier this year at Las Vegas shows that he has that in him somewhere.

Bill Kimm: Regardless of who it is, the good thing is that we have had two surprise winners this year and there are up-and-comers who will get a win or two very soon. This is good for the sport.

David Caraviello: Bill is right. It is great to see surprise winners. They add some juice to the sport. Now, if only they would fight! Hey, that's what everyone evidently wants to see, right? ...

Bill Kimm: Hey, David held off until question No. 2 before he over-generalized a comment of mine. I'm getting better at this Smack thing.

Mark Aumann: By the way, congrats to Regan Smith and his guys. That was an awesome way to score your first Cup win. And for a guy who deserved all the handshakes and pats on the back that he's gotten since.

David Caraviello: I think people undersell David Ragan as a potential race winner just because his history is so spotty, even in good equipment. No question the guy's come around in the past year or two, and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer has a lot to do with that. He's at the point now where, being in a Roush Fenway car, where people wouldn't be stunned if he reached Victory Lane. Shoot, he very well may have done that at Daytona, if not for his improper lane change.

Mark Aumann: He's been strong on the intermediate tracks, too. Just seems he hasn't been able to put together a complete race yet. I think Ragan's overdue.

David Caraviello: I don't disagree, Mark, but he's been overdue for like five years. The guy is in Roush equipment -- he should be where he is today. I think he'd be the first to admit that. Meanwhile, Menard is a guy who everyone discounted until he got in a good car. Then he opened eyes. Under the right circumstances, either of those guys can win. Maybe Ragan at the next Daytona race, and Menard the next time the circuit visits Talladega? Throw in Allmendinger at Charlotte and Ambrose at Sonoma, and we have whole bevy of surprise winners in store!

Bill Kimm: That's not good for me -- Daytona is in July, Talladega not until October. Swap those around, David! We also will have one heck of a wild-card battle. So, not to put pressure on any of these drivers, but the three of us have Allmendinger, Ambrose, Menard and Ragan all winning their first race this year. This season is going to be awesome!

Mark Aumann: Heck, if places like Daytona and Darlington have had upsets, why not Charlotte and Indy? Might as well make surprises at all the crown jewels.

David Caraviello: Mark, if fuel mileage comes into play, that could certainly be the case in the 600. And at Indianapolis ... well, would Juan Montoya finally finishing off his first oval-course victory count?

Mark Aumann: Montoya had Indy in the bag. I think he believes that place owes him.

David Caraviello: He's had it in the bag twice. I just wonder, given that he still doesn't have that first oval-course win, if him winning on a circle track would be as much of a surprise as someone like David Ragan or Paul Menard doing it? Probably not, given what we all know the guy is capable of. Montoya could win anywhere. But of course, so could plenty of other guys. Doing it is another matter altogether.

Mark Aumann: In Montoya's case, I think it's more just a surprise that he hasn't won one more than if he did. It's not like he's terrible on ovals. He just hasn't delivered yet. And if we're talking about potential first-time winners, Dave Blaney and Andy Lally fans want equal time.

David Caraviello: I'd make a remark about Dave Blaney's fans, but I want to prevent my e-mail inbox from becoming overloaded. They're a protective bunch.

Laps Led103534420
Lead-Lap Fin.64647
Did Not Finish00102
Avg. Start14.718.413.716.615.8
Avg. Finish15.520.317.316.118.9
Points Rank1122181319

Mark Aumann: Don't you mess with the Blaniacs.

3. Carl Edwards leads the standings by a healthy 23 points heading to Dover. But second-place Jimmie Johnson is strong in Delaware and Charlotte, where the circuit goes next. Do we have an established championship favorite yet?

David Caraviello: No. And we won't have an "established championship favorite" -- who comes up with these questions, anyway? -- until about halfway through the Chase. You don't want to be the guy like Harvick last year or Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart a few years back, where you lead the majority of the season only to cede the points advantage to someone else late in the playoff. But it seems that's what happens, every time. This is for sprinters, not distance runners.

Bill Kimm: I honestly don't think we do have a clear-cut favorite, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Carl has been lights out recently -- since Phoenix he's finished worse than sixth once. But there are so many guys with very strong seasons going, this baby is wide-open for once.

Magnificent seven?

Point Standings
2.J. Johnson 1 4 6
3.Kyle Busch 2 5 6
4.Dale Jr. 0 2 5
5.K. Harvick 2 4 5
6.R. Newman 0 4 5
7.T. Stewart 0 1 4

Mark Aumann: I think you can look at it two ways: One, just like in 2010 when Kevin Harvick was the most consistent driver in the season's first half, Edwards is showing that he's a true contender. Two, nothing really matters until the checkered flag at Richmond in September. It's sort of like the Kentucky Derby. There's always a speed horse, but the race doesn't really start until they get into the final stretch. And then you see who has the strongest kick.

David Caraviello: Hey, I don't doubt that Edwards is on his game right now. Shoot, I picked him to win the whole thing this year, and he's rarely made a misstep so far. But you could say the same about Harvick last year. Really, it all depends on who can be a closer in this deal. Wake me as we approach the next Charlotte race -- in October -- then we'll know who the favorite is.

Mark Aumann: You know, maybe NASCAR should institute pari-mutuel wagering. Heck, they already have the tote board at Dover. I'll take the Edwards-Johnson-Harvick trifecta with a Kyle Busch box.

Bill Kimm: Edwards looks so cool and confident right now, those are good traits to have in a season. But the contract renewal, or lack thereof, will continue to grow as the season wears on. Hopefully he and Roush don't let it become a distraction, but the longer he is a "free-agent-in-the-making," the more chances there are to rock the boat.

Mark Aumann: I would agree, Bill, but I really think once the drivers strap the helmet on, they don't have any distractions, like contracts and salaries. I just don't know if that actually plays into the on-track stuff at all.

David Caraviello: OK, so if there's no real contender right now, can we at least say things are becoming somewhat stratified? I think you have a top tier of championship contenders right now in Edwards, Jimmie Johnson -- boy, talk about a guy under the radar -- Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. I think they've shown enough week-to-week strength that you know they're going to be around until the end. Then there are guys like Stewart, Ryan Newman and yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who maybe don't look like championship material right now, but have shown enough to make you think they can fight their way into the mix.

Mark Aumann: Locks for the Chase: Edwards, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Harvick. Will the champion come from that group of four? Probably. But I'm not 100 percent certain yet. The guy who still looms out there, week in and week out, and can't seem to catch a break: Tony Stewart.

David Caraviello: And then there's everyone else. Really, everyone from Kurt Busch in eighth place on down has weaknesses, and you'd be somewhat surprised to see them make a real run at it. But then again, everything changes in the fall. And Mark, I'd take that box superfecta for the championship. Got to think the probability right now of one of those guys winning it is rather hefty.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, although the odds there would be pretty much even money, David. You'd have to throw in a long shot to get back anything worthwhile. There's nothing like holding the ticket for the winning horse and seeing "Inquiry" light up on the tote board to chill your bones.

Bill Kimm: Don't count out Denny Hamlin -- they started rough, but they have proven they can put long streaks of top-fives and wins together. Things are turning around for that No. 11 team.

Mark Aumann: Well, Johnson turned around a lot at Darlington, and see where that got him.

David Caraviello: Hamlin's team has to just get into the Chase first, and the stress of that process can take a lot out of a program. I'm not saying he isn't capable of winning it if he gets in. But there's no guarantee he will even get in. Lot of work to do yet before we can see him as a potential championship contender.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I expected so much more from the No. 11 this season and so far, they've failed to show that consistency. However, we're just past the quarter pole and a whole lot of racing still to go, especially on Denny's best tracks.

Bill Kimm: You guys, there are some good names just outside the top 10 that could peak late in the year, and really make a run at it: Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon -- all guys very capable of winning the championship.

David Caraviello: Good names, yes. Capable of winning the championship? I don't know. We're basically a quarter of the way through the season now. What you have is what you have. Miracle turnarounds in this deal are rare. That's not to say those guys can't get into the Chase, and once you're there, who knows what happens. But it's very, very hard to show sustained excellence for the 10 races it takes to win a title. Not every team can do it. The pool of contenders for the championship is much shallower than the pool of guys who can make the Chase. They're two different things entirely.

Bill Kimm: A miracle is you saying, "Bill was right," which I believed happened earlier. Biff, Hamlin or Four-Time getting into the championship hunt -- not a miracle.

Mark Aumann: Oh, quit horsing around, you guys.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.