News & Media

Caraviello: No surprise Keselowski rubs some wrong way

August 03, 2011, David Caraviello,

It was vintage short-track racing, and a perfect way to bid farewell to Lucas Oil Raceway. Lining up on the outside for what would be the penultimate restart, Brad Keselowski nibbled at the right-rear quarter panel of leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. before crossing over and pulling even on the inside. The two cars made contact, with Keselowski leaning on Stenhouse just enough to force his opponent to yield, and carrying so much speed into the next corner he banged off the wall. The No. 22 car edged out front, where it would remain when Elliott Sadler spun to force a green-white-checkered finish that would result in Keselowski's second Nationwide victory of the season.

That series of events Saturday night was electric stuff, the single best stretch of racing during the three days NASCAR spent in greater Indianapolis, and a reminder of how mesmerizing short-track competition can be when drivers show both the ability and the willingness to get a little physical with one another. Fans clamor every week for tight, side-by-side racing, and here it was in living color, the kind of episode we'll probably see recycled into television commercials and incorporated into the highlight film at the Nationwide Series banquet at the end of the year.

"The perceptions of me probably didn't help my cause with some of the fans, but I would have expected Ricky to have done the same thing."


Why, then, did some people react as if Keselowski had used his black and white Dodge to rob a bank? Thanks to the instantaneous nature of Twitter, the reactions came rolling in even before Keselowski had rolled into Victory Lane, and many of them flipped upside-down the conventional notion of what we think race fans want from their sport. Keselowski had raced Stenhouse too hard, some claimed. He didn't need to make contact with the No. 6 car, others argued. As a Sprint Cup regular, he should have taken it easier on a Nationwide driver racing for the championship, a few protested.

Granted, this was not exactly a representative sampling, and there were surely plenty of folks cheering the action as it unfolded on the short track in Clermont, Ind., on Saturday night. But it was still an odd response to the kind of door-to-door racing everyone claims to want to see more of in NASCAR, particularly an instance that didn't involve anyone getting spun out. After the race, Keselowski -- quickly becoming a master of social media -- took to Twitter to defend himself. Tuesday, he still seemed rather bemused by it all.

"Yes, I was surprised," he said. "I didn't expect people to be upset over hard racing and, to me, that's all it was."

His reaction is understandable. This is a sport, after all, where Dale Earnhardt rattling Terry Labonte's cage has become an iconic snapshot, where Jeff Gordon pulling the bump-and-run on Rusty Wallace has come to define what short-track racing is all about, where history is full of examples -- think Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch leaning on one another at Darlington, or Jimmie Johnson nudging Denny Hamlin aside at Martinsville -- of drivers deftly using their fenders or quarter panels to help them win a race. On that spectrum, the contact between Keselowski and Stenhouse was mild, to say the least. It will never be confused with Brian Vickers taking out Johnson at Talladega. It was calculated, it was careful, and it left Stenhouse's car totally intact.

And still, an outcry, from fans perhaps more dissatisfied by the player involved than the tactics employed. Because last we checked, rubbing is still racing -- isn't it?

"I was never going to get in the back of Ricky to win that race, but he opened up the bottom going into Turn 1 and I drove underneath him," Keselowski said. "I was at a short-track race [Monday] night in Anderson, Ind., and they were doing the same thing there. Contact happens on a race track. I knew I was probably going to get into him, because we both drove in very hard into Turn 3, but it wasn't malicious. The perceptions of me probably didn't help my cause with some of the fans, but I would have expected Ricky to have done the same thing."

And there, plainly, is the heart of it. Almost certainly, this is an issue with some folks not because it involved contact in the final laps of a close race, but because it involved contact coming from Keselowski, whose aggressive style on the track and unrepentant nature off it have made him one of the more polarizing figures in NASCAR. Easily one of the most engaging and quick-witted drivers in the garage area, he's still dogged by memories of that final-lap crash at Talladega 2009, still misunderstood by many in the grandstand who just don't get his often smart-aleck, occasionally rabble-rousing nature. If there's a bear around, Keselowski is apt to poke it. His initial Twitter reaction to this mini-controversy was typical: "Apparently," he wrote, "I PO'd some fans by racing too hard."

As if there is such a thing in a series where officials have repeatedly attempted to put more of an emphasis on winning, where fans have traditionally decried drivers who points race or play it conservatively, where even Stenhouse even wrote later on Twitter that he would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed. But no, this is Keselowski, who races the way people want their drivers to race, and gets dumped on nonetheless. Funny how we never heard any complaints about Craven racing Busch too hard at Darlington in 2003.

But Saturday night? Meet the only driver who can rub people the wrong way by rubbing up against another competitor, the way racers have done it on short tracks for decades. All those black doughnut marks seen on the sides of race cars after events at places like Richmond and Martinsville aren't part of the paint schemes. There's a reason Bristol sold out for 55 consecutive races, and it's not because of the cuisine in eastern Tennessee. It's because fans want to see drivers compete the way Keselowski and Stenhouse did on Saturday night, regardless of the outcome or the names involved.

At least, that's what we've always been led to believe. Are there so few short tracks remaining in NASCAR's national divisions that fans have become more accustomed to aerodynamic showdowns on wide tri-ovals, and forgotten the sometimes bare-knuckled nuance of winning in the bullring? If that's the case, then shed another tear for little Lucas Oil Raceway, which drops off the Nationwide and Camping World Truck schedule next year when the Nationwide cars move to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At least Keselowski's winning move, a textbook example of how to rough up a another competitor without really roughing him up at all, was a fitting way to send the place out.

"Even if the roles were reversed, the fan inside Brad Keselowski would've left the track saying, 'Now that was a damn good finish.' That's the reason people love short-track racing," Keselowski said. "Sometimes you have to get rough to pass. There wasn't one person in that field of 43 cars that wouldn't have made the move that I did with only a handful of laps left. There is a reason that none of the drivers want to leave Lucas Oil Raceway behind. That's because it puts on that kind of racing."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.