In any other race, NASCAR driver Ryan Newman wouldn’t have bothered making the move. There would be no point. Nobody wrecks anybody over 11th place.
But it was the penultimate race of the NASCAR season, and Newman needed to pick up one more spot to lock himself into the final, four-man race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. So on the last lap at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, 12th-place Newman barreled low into the corner, underneath a car driven by 11th-place rookie Kyle Larson, knowing full well that his momentum through the turn would carry him into Larson’s car.
The presence of Larson’s car made the move both possible and controversial. Newman a) sideswiped Larson’s car, which b) knocked Larson into the wall, and c) stopped Newman’s drift toward the wall, while d) giving him Larson’s position and the points and the place in Sunday’s final race.
It was a desperate, balls-out, Hail Mary move, and usually after contact like that drivers pretend it was an accident. Newman didn’t bother. He was honest enough to admit he wasn’t proud of it. He weighed the pros (a chance at a championship, plus a possible stain on his own reputation) and cons (no chance at a championship) and found the pros much more inviting.
This reveals the moral ambiguity of the bump and run. Is it OK to intentionally push somebody into the wall so that you can pursue glory? As a metaphor for life, the answer is obviously “No.” In racing, the answer is “Of course it is, as long as it’s not me you’re running into the wall.”
So nobody’s wrong and everybody’s right and the clear winner is NASCAR, which over the last few weeks has gotten the ratings and attention it so desperately craves. NASCAR blew up its old points system and instituted a new championship format this season based on wins and postseason eliminations to create moments exactly like this one, in which drivers take risks in order to advance, and media and fans spend the next week chewing it over.
Critics complain the new system creates contrived excitement at the risk of crowning a fluke champion. To which NASCAR says, more or less: So? The whole sport seems to have lost its mind in this postseason, with punches and shoves and headlocks and wrecks and more that-guy’s-out-of-his-ever-loving-mind racing in nine events than there is in most seasons.
With one race left and a four-driver, best-finisher-take-all format, a you ain’t seen nothing yet sense permeates the sport. The final race of the season – the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN – is expected to be one of the craziest the sport has ever seen. Let’s meet the Crazies who will make it so.
Kevin Harvick is part provocateur, part pitchman; a dimpled, perma-grinned rake who often finds himself at the center of controversy – usually because he created it. He’s nicknamed Happy, which is funny considering how many drivers he’s made mad over the years, a list that includes Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya and more.
After Brad Keselowski took out Jeff Gordon in a race at Texas two weeks ago, Harvick stood by and watched as Gordon yelled at Keselowski. Harvick thought Keselowski needed to man up, so he shoved him from behind toward Gordon, a stunt a fifth-grader would be embarrassed to pull. That ignited a brawl as big as any NASCAR has had in years. Harvick won’t start anything that wild on Sunday. Probably not, at least.
Joey Logano is the least likely of the four drivers to do something outrageous, but his sour history with all three finalists suggests he’s the most likely to be a victim of someone else’s aggression.
Harvick started needling Logano publicly Wednesday night. Logano’s reputation is that he can be pushed around and won’t stand up for himself. But that’s not entirely fair. He has argued repeatedly with Newman over the years. He scuffled with fellow finalist and former teammate Denny Hamlin’s crew members after a race last year, and then he and Hamlin collided during a race a week later, which left Hamlin with a compression fracture in his back.
After a race in 2010 in which Harvick dumped him, Logano tried to confront Harvick. Nothing came of that except for this beauty of a quote from Logano about Harvick: “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.”
Denny Hamlin is the wild card of the bunch. He could drive a perfectly clean race or he could punt the pace car. He was so mad at Keselowski after a race at Charlotte in October that he chased him in his car through the garage area. He climbed out and tried to continue the pursuit on foot. Teammates and race officials grabbed him and calmed him down before he could go anywhere – and then he got away from them, strode to Keselowski’s car and threw a towel at him.
But Hamlin talked at length last week about the fact he’d rather have the respect of his peers and no championships than a championship and no friends (an unveiled, unsubtle shot at Keselowski). Hamlin went on for so long about it that maybe he actually believed it. Sunday likely will prove otherwise.
Ryan Newman qualified for the final race and a shot at his first championship because of the absence of bad races on his resume, rather than the presence of great ones. He has finished no better than third and no worse than 18th in the playoffs. He has a reputation for being the hardest guy in the sport to pass, but it’s not because he’s fast. It’s because he’s slow and won’t get out of faster guys’ way.
If Newman wins the title he will do so with the worst championship season in history, and the critics of NASCAR’s new points system, who are loud if not legion, will lose their minds. The worst Newman can finish on the season is fourth overall, and his stats (zero wins, four top 5s, average finish of 13.0) don’t merit even that. There’s a fine line between a scrappy underdog and an opportunistic fluke. Not to say Newman would be a boring champion but Keselowski has more fat lips this season than Newman has wins.
But Newman earned his spot by playing the postseason points system better than the rest – or because he’s lucky that nobody ran him into the fence (yet). His presence promises to make Sunday interesting, if for nothing else than his chance to make ignominious history. If he’ll plow into a guy for 11th, what will he do for a championship?