Auto racing is a sport whose lifeblood is pumped by aggression, but at what point does that aggression cross the line into overly dangerous driving?
That answer perhaps is different for every driver, team owner, official and fan.
In NASCAR, the man in the middle of that discussion at the moment is Ross Chastain, whose aggressive driving nature has produced complaints from other drivers and resulted in Chastain offering a post-race apology and admitting that he raced over his head.
Chastain’s profile has been lifted this season because Trackhouse Racing has provided him with fast cars at virtually every stop, putting him into position to grapple with leading drivers and, occasionally, to irritate them with bold – sometimes too bold – moves.
Trackhouse owner Justin Marks and a growing Chastain fan base – they’re often seen wearing Chastain’s watermelon-themed caps and T-shirts – have endorsed Chastain’s driving style, while others, notably Denny Hamlin, who promised retaliation, have been very critical.
Chastain is not the first – and won’t be the last – driver to be in this gathering fire. Over the years, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jimmy Spencer, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and a long list of others have been accused of driving over the line.
And then there’s Ernie Irvan.
In the early 1990s, Irvan became a target of heavy criticism for reckless driving as he tried to climb through the NASCAR ranks. He had rolled in from the West Coast a decade earlier and worked through short-track racing looking for an opening to bigger things. He caught the eye of Earnhardt, who occasionally provided Irvan with financial backing.
As Irvan built a presence in Cup, he sometimes outran his own front bumper, as garage veterans might say. He pushed his car into spaces that were too small and made dangerous passes that resulted in multi-car crashes.
The big trouble began at Darlington Raceway in April 1990. Irvan, several laps down, raced leader Ken Schrader aggressively as Schrader tried to pass, and they crashed in the fourth turn. Several other cars couldn’t avoid the mess, and Neil Bonnett suffered a significant head injury that kept him out of racing for several years.
A year later, Irvan was at the center of a 20-car crash at Talladega Superspeedway. That accident resulted in Kyle Petty suffering a broken leg.
Several races later, Irvan and Hut Stricklin were involved in a major crash at Pocono Raceway, and Irvan again was blamed.
When the tour arrived at Talladega that May, the tension surrounding Irvan had reached its peak. He had picked up a nickname: Swervin’ Irvan. The more critical residents of the garage used a tougher term: Gurney Ernie.
NASCAR officials asked veteran drivers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip to meet with Irvan in an attempt to change his direction.
“We pointed out that he was getting himself in a lot of trouble and wrecking cars and people were upset with him,” Waltrip said. “He wasn’t going to have a future in the sport if he didn’t correct his ways. He said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You need to get up in the drivers meeting Sunday and apologize.’ ”
On Saturday before the Sunday Talladega race, Irvan walked through the garage area several times and was seen talking to drivers and team owners. On Sunday, in a rare moment, he stood before the podium in the pre-race drivers meeting and apologized.
“I’ve lost the respect of a lot of drivers and car owners in this garage area,” said Irvan, clearly uncomfortable. “That hurts. I’ve drove a little overaggressive some. I’m going to work on trying to be a little more patient. I want to earn everybody’s respect back. I like to be liked in the garage area. I appreciate maybe you guys give me a shot at it. I definitely want to be everybody’s friend in here.”
Most of the drivers in attendance applauded.
Irvan slowly cleaned up his act, won races and became a weekly victory threat before head injuries eventually forced him into early retirement.
Thirty years after being the center of negative attention, Irvan said he had to gain the respect of other drivers by respecting them more.
“Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty both told me that you have to respect your fellow competitors,” Irvan told NBC Sports. “If they’re in positions ahead of you, they have every right to be there. If you try to steal it from them, there will be consequences. If they’re faster, then pass them clean. That was hard to believe coming from Earnhardt.
“When it’s all said and done, I don’t know one incident where I said that I was going to take a guy out. It became a matter of watching what I was doing. I still drove just as hard. I think I just was more conscious of trying to respect my fellow racers.”
Is there a comparison to be made between the Ernie Irvan of the early 1990s and the Ross Chastain of today?
“No comparison,” Richard Petty told NBC Sports. “Ross has a little bit of finesse. Ernie didn’t. Earnhardt didn’t. Ross is the most aggressive guy out there right now, for sure. He’s aggressive without being Earnhardt. He will move you out of the way without wrecking you — most of the time, where Earnhardt would just go ahead and wreck you.”
Waltrip said Chastain’s racing moves have drawn more attention because Trackhouse has put very fast cars on the track.
“He’s aggressive, and he has fast cars,” Waltrip told NBC Sports. “You find yourself sometimes in situations you’ve never been in before. But he needs to slow down a little bit. He needs to use his skills and stop running over people. He’s an incredibly talented driver. Hopefully, he’ll control his aggressiveness and end up being a great driver. He’s a fun guy to have in the sport.”
NBC racing analyst Kyle Petty said Chastain shouldn’t change.
“I would much rather, as an owner, have an Ernie Irvan or a Ross Chastain, somebody I didn’t have to kick in the butt and move them forward,” he said. “Ross Chastain is going to go get it. That’s what (team owner) Justin Marks pays him to do.”
After the Talladega wreck that resulted in Petty’s broken leg, he said he talked to Irvan. “There were no hard feelings about anything,” he said. “I didn’t take it personally.”
Irvan said other drivers in typical race fields are as aggressive as Chastain. “He looks to me like he does a heck of a job,” Irvan said. “You could pin that (being too aggressive) on a lot of people. A lot of people do the exact same thing, but maybe it’s at a different time, or maybe it’s because it has been multiple occasions with Ross.”
Chastain has struggled with finding the middle ground between hard racing and racing that’s too hard.
“I look back at some of the moves I made, and I think I can be better in some of those instances,” he said Thursday. “It’s a work in progress. My thoughts are not about backing off or going slower of staying behind somebody. It’s how can I be better. How can I pass whatever car in a better way. … That’s the kind of never-ending evolution of my driving which I want to continue to make better.”