Originally created 09/22/05

Tempers flare as Chase begins, piquing interest



Mark Martin has been around NASCAR long enough to know what's good for business, and Sunday's fiasco at New Hampshire was exactly what the sport needed as it kicked off its Chase for the Championship.

With fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon both eliminated from the playoffs before it even started, the Nextel Cup Series needed something to capture the imagination and attention from its fans. It came during the race in the form of three crashes - and the responses that followed.

Martin said it was embarrassing to see fellow drivers act that way, but he also knows ratings likely will jump as a result.

"To be real honest about it - the people love that stuff," he said. "Not that it's a good thing, I think it's a really bad thing, but it is news - big news."

Defending series champion Kurt Busch crashed on the third lap when he was bumped by Scott Riggs. And while his team made repairs to his Ford, he jogged down pit road to talk with Riggs' crew chief, Rodney Childers.

It escalated when Kyle Busch rammed into Kasey Kahne, sending him into the second turn wall. Kahne's car was badly damaged, but not enough to keep him from driving into Busch as he passed on the next lap.

The trouble reached a climax when Michael Waltrip turned Robby Gordon around and into the wall while the race was under caution. Gordon tried to drive his car into Waltrip a lap later, but it wouldn't start. So he got out, walked onto the track and threw his helmet at Waltrip on the next lap.

NASCAR promised stiff penalties and suggested suspensions might be doled out, but it responded only with fines, reduction of points and probation. In doing so, NASCAR not only reaped the benefits of the attention the fights drew but also left the impression it won't tolerate any more roughhousing.

"I don't like it, but to be honest with you, I watched the news when I got home to see what everybody said and to see what everybody did - and my wife is a great indicator - she's not the biggest fan in the world but she said that was the greatest race she'd seen all year because of all that stuff," Martin said.

And it came a week after ratings from Richmond, Va., the final qualifying race before the Chase, dropped from last year. The fights, it seems, might help race fans forget about Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon during Sunday's MBNA RacePoints 400 at Dover International Speedway.

"We looked like a circus," Greg Biffle said. "The NASCAR race at Loudon looked like a cheap wrestling match to me. It was a little out there, I think. One incident, yeah, that can happen. But to have a couple in the same race, I don't think was good for us. Drama and all that and excitement and who is going to beat who and seeing people's real personality and people upset, that's going to happen, but I think it was a little excessive.

"We've got to stop the retaliation. I understand. I've done it. I've got fined. I got 100 points taken away for punching a guy through the window at Richmond. I've gotten money taken away for other things. It's frustrating, but you've got to be able to contain that because you're going to end up catching an innocent bystander up into it."

That's already happened. At Bristol in August, Dale Jarrett turned right into Ryan Newman to pay him back for an earlier bump. Newman hit the wall and Kevin Harvick wound up hitting the wall, too, trying to miss the accident. The crash essentially ended Harvick's - and Jarrett's - chances to make the Chase.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.