Ryan: Logano vs. Kenseth reaffirms fine line of circus vs. sport

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The cars had fallen silent, but a crowd of at least 50,000 just kept roaring.

As the video board in the middle of the Martinsville Speedway infield replayed Matt Kenseth’s takeout of leader Joey Logano causing a red flag with 45 laps left in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, the raucous cheers, gasps and exclamations of wonder continued in an unabated din. Heads turned upward in every pit box as an array of smiles and frowns formed while reliving the most controversial wreck of the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season.

The scene was more chaotic in the garage, where Logano’s crew members scurried between fans holding aloft smartphones trying to capture photos and videos of the heavily damaged No. 22 Ford. Henry County sheriff’s deputies tried to restore order (“If you’re not media, you’ve got to back up!” quickly morphed into “I need everybody out of here but live TV!”) as Logano exited the nearby care center and walked briskly to his team’s stall – now to a chorus of boos cascading down the from the double-decker grandstands in Turn 2.

A Joe Gibbs Racing crew member turned to a teammate and smiled.

“I just came over to fight,” he joked.

There was anger. There was awe. There was amusement.

There was a captivating spectacle of the sort that largely had gone missing over the first 33 races of the season on a circuit that likes billing passion as a primary selling point.

Was this “quintessential NASCAR” as chairman Brian France famously had declared about Logano bumping Kenseth from the lead to win at Kansas Speedway?

Some of the self-proclaimed standard bearers of the sport, and its most uptight sponsors, certainly wouldn’t agree. And after nearly six seasons of living in the “Boys, have at it” era, exacerbated by a revamped playoff system that incrementally keeps raising the already sky-high stakes over the final 10 races, some of its stars seemed less certain, too.

“I don’t even know anymore, the structure in which we have around us is not very strong as far as an authority figure saying, ‘No, you cannot do that anymore,’ ” said Denny Hamlin, whose voice carries significant weight as an organizer of the driver’s council that began meeting with NASCAR this year. “It’s just tough for us because this is what’s been created. I love Brian France, but when he says that drivers are doing what they have to do, it seems like he’s promoting this type of racing, so that’s tough to crown a true champion when things go like this.

“It’s a no-holds-barred Wild, Wild West. Sure, when people crown the statement that a driver’s doing what he’s got to do and they became OK with that statement, you’re just opening up Pandora’s box. Everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It’s a bad statement. It’s an ugly statement.”

The ugly truth, though, is that men behaving badly have been a cornerstone of stock-car racing for 66 years. It had veterans emerging wide-eyed from their cars after Kenseth’s ignominious payback at Martinsville.

“Wow, man! That was wild stuff,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “They’re going to talk about that for a while. I mean, look at this Chase. It’s wild for these fans, and they’ve got to be thrilled with how this Chase is so intense compared to our past formats. Unbelievable stuff happening out there.”

Depending on the optics used to determine quality, what some perceive as NASCAR’s best also might be viewed as its worst.

At the risk of evoking metal folding chairs and bawdy entrance music, its most alluring elements can feel tantamount to pro wrestling. That’s a comparison that once earned Tony Stewart a harsh condemnation because it dangerously skirts the boundaries of the scripted and staged. NASCAR understandably wants to avoid those unfair and untrue associations, but it can’t escape another root conclusion whether it’s actors dressed in tights or athletes wearing firesuits.

They both are the central figures of soap operas.

Yes, fans want the hard racing that largely has been disappearing with short tracks such as Martinsville. But as measured by the thunderous rumblings of approval Sunday at the 0.526-mile oval, they also want the outbursts of unbridled emotion and episodes of vicious retribution that could be construed as embarrassing.

It’s a byproduct of billing yourself as a “contact sport” and tacitly endorsing frontier justice, and France surely understands the Faustian bargain in play with proclamations that could be interpreted as feeding bloodlust.

In its most indelible moments – from the fistfight on the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 to the paybacks dished out Sunday – NASCAR always teeters on the precariously thin line between being branded as an out-of-control circus or an enthralling sport.

Still, the punishment for Kenseth must be severe. While France has encouraged his stars to mix it up, the message has been that crashing for a win or in a fierce battle for position is OK.

When was the last time a lapped car (in this case, 10 laps down) just decided, “Sorry, you don’t get to win,” and wrecked a leader so close to the finish? Those are the types of shenanigans immortalized by the Modified series at Bowman-Gray Stadium, which is synonymous with bush league. There might be a place for it in racing but not on the national stage.

At the very least, Kenseth must be given a penalty matching what Jeff Gordon received for intentionally crashing Clint Bowyer at Phoenix International Raceway in 2012 (a 25-point penalty, $100,000 fine).

And given the dynamics of the Chase for the Sprint Cup then vs. now – Gordon cost Bowyer an outside chance at a title, while Kenseth might have eliminated the championship favorite from a guaranteed shot in the finale —  it probably should be much harsher. Sitting Kenseth at Texas Motor Speedway – and possibly for the final three races of the season – should be on the table.

Regardless, the decision is sure to inspire another roar from NASCAR Nation, where the level of noise always outweighs the importance of anything else.