By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Racing doesn’t get much better than a bump-and-run on the final lap for the victory. It’s what Carl Edwards did to teammate Kyle Busch at Richmond International Raceway in what NASCAR says was the first last-lap pass for a win in track history.
It was dramatic, controversial and likely set the stage for tense team meetings this week at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Was it enough, though, to build any positive goodwill for NASCAR?
“I think (Sunday) was a great day for the sport,” said winning crew chief Dave Rogers of Edwards’ decision to nudge his teammate out of the way to win the race. “It would be very disappointing to our fans if Joe imposed a team order and told us, ‘Hey, have a parade instead of a race.’”
It’s hard to say with NASCAR’s bipolar fan base. Most weeks, the majority of the fans can’t stand Busch and use social media to vow they’ll never watch another race until Busch is banned from competing in the second-tier Xfinity Series. On Monday, though, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. on social media smacking back at fans complaining that Edwards’ move was dirty.
“In my book it’s ok to lean on a guy for a W. Not ok to put them in the fence. Lean on ‘em, but don’t ruin their day,” Earnhardt replied on Twitter to a fan who asked him what he would have done in Edwards’ situation.
The only people who should be upset are Busch and his race team. This is the kind of racing fans are supposed to embrace, a driver putting it all out there and fearlessly moving the reigning Sprint Cup champion out of his way for a trip to victory lane.
If there’s an issue, it should only exist inside the walls at JGR, where the team owner can navigate any potential hard feelings.
But this is the new norm in NASCAR, where no race is good enough, no finish exciting enough, to satisfy this fan base.
That’s a serious problem for NASCAR.
How did this happen? Well, it wasn’t overnight and fixing this problem won’t be fast, either.
A combination of bad racing and boardroom decisions made by NASCAR has alienated many hardcore fans and turned off the casual observer. The races are too long, the 11-month schedule oversaturated. Some fans love the playoff-style Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, others despise it and long for the good ‘ol days.
More than anything, though, it seems the themes that most ignite the fan base are all off-track issues.
Die-hards were disgusted when NASCAR chairman Brian France said he didn’t want Confederate flags at races anymore. Then he alienated a different portion of the fan base when he endorsed Donald Trump for president. The prayer given before this month’s race at Texas by “Duck Commander” founder Phil Robertson was cringe-worthy to almost everyone but conservatives.
And now, the sport just spent a week debating lug nuts and freedom of speech.
NASCAR’s cutback on pit road officials meant the series could no longer ensure every team tightened all five lug nuts after every tire change. Earnhardt, Greg Biffle and crew chief Rodney Childers were among the handful of participants who warned of the danger in allowing teams to skip lug nuts in favor of a faster pit stop.
Then Tony Stewart gave his two cents — warning of potential injury if NASCAR doesn’t step in — and the series promptly fined him $35,000 under its new behavioral policy. Few believe it was anything but retribution from France over Stewart’s direct attacks on him over the years.
So off they all went to Richmond, where Stewart made his return after missing the first eight races with a back injury. His return was overshadowed by his fine, by the Driver Council’s decision to pay the $35,000 for him and, of course, by lug nuts. As Stewart was getting ready to race for the first time this season, a big and welcome headline for NASCAR, he was on national TV talking about lug nuts and his fine.
It’s been one public relations disaster after another this year for NASCAR, which has chosen to vaguely answer or not comment at all on issue after issue. All of this sideshow nonsense has only heightened the animosity of the fan base.
NASCAR desperately needs to find a way to stop shifting attention away from its stars, from its improving product and from its rivalries. It would go a long way toward making Edwards’ move on Sunday appreciated as “quintessential NASCAR” racing, as France has stated. Right now, though, it delivered just another opportunity for its bitter and jaded fans to complain.