If there’s an essential art to stock car racing it’s using the fender. Seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was a master of the art, winning quite a few races over the years by employing the technique. Earnhardt was known first as ‘Ironhead’ and then took on the mantle of ‘The Intimidator’, the man in the black No3. That image was the source of Earnhardt’s legendary popularity and the master of ‘using the fender’ came to define NASCAR.
I well remember an IROC race at Daytona in the early ’90s. Al Unser Jr was as good as anyone in those days and regularly raced with and beat the NASCAR stars in IROC races at Daytona and elsewhere. Unser had done a perfect job, slingshotting through into the lead going into the last lap. But Earnhardt inched closer all the way down the back straight and, as they thundered into turn three on the last lap, Earnhardt hammered into the tail of Unser’s car. The collision sent Al Jr flying. In fact, he went over the fence and ‘out of the ballpark’. Thankfully, he was entirely uninjured. A little shaken to be sure, but unscratched. Back in the garage Earnhardt was grinning and telling the story. “’Aw shucks, man! That’s racing! He knew I was coming. He’s okay, ain’t he?”
After reflecting on the incident Unser reached a conclusion: “I guess the only way to beat him is to get far enough ahead so he can’t touch you, because if he can get to you, he’s gonna crash you.”
And so it is in stock car racing. Let’s remember Richard Petty and David Pearson crashing into each other in the run up to the chequered flag at Daytona in 1976, and the Allison brothers feuding with Cale Yarborough three years later. Many other examples abound.
Which brings us to NASCAR’s latest feud between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. It started at Talladega last year when Keselowski nudged Edwards as they charged towards the flag. Edwards’ car got airborne and cartwheeled down the track, tearing out yards of fence as Keselowski ran out the winner.
Round two in their feud took place at Atlanta in March, where Edwards adroitly nudged Keselowski into a spin near the end of the race on the high-banked superspeedway. This time it was Keselowski who went flying (above). His car came down on its roof, thumped the wall hard and landed upright but in a sorry state.
“To intentionally wreck someone, that’s not cool,” said Keselowski. “He could have killed someone in the grandstands. At least I didn’t do it intentionally [at Talladega]. If they’re going to allow people to intentionally wreck each other, we will hurt someone in the cars or in the grandstands.”
Edwards showed some small contrition: “The scary part was his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected. I wish that wouldn’t have gone like it did.”
NASCAR black-flagged Edwards and excluded him from running any more laps. Two days later it announced that Edwards would be placed on probation for the next three races, but NASCAR’s president Mike Helton deflected talk about the incident, saying NASCAR was more concerned with cars flying. “The bigger topic is [Keselowski] getting airborne,” he said. “It’s been years since we’ve seen that at a mile-and-a-half track.”
Retired NASCAR star Rusty Wallace is now a television commentator for ESPN. Wallace put the Edwards/Keselowski feud into perspective. “I was hoping they weren’t going to do anything whatsoever,” he said. “I think NASCAR wants that rivalry, that excitement. They don’t want to hurt people, but they want exciting racing.”
Indeed they do. It’s all about the art and spectacle of using the fender.