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NASCAR faces tough calls on issuing penalties

CHARLOTTE (AP) — NASCAR Chairman Brian France has always been very clear about the action he wants to see in races.

He loved the 2011 season finale when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards waged a white-knuckle battle for both the race win and the championship, and France was captivated in March 2013 by the intensity of the closing laps at Fontana. Feuding drivers Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano wouldn’t give an inch as they raced for the win and ended up wrecking each other, and Kyle Busch squeezed through to steal a victory.

For good measure, Stewart tried to confront Logano on pit road after the race to add another layer of excitement to an already thrilling finish.

Those are the races talked about on Mondays, the ones that garner mainstream media attention. Fans remember Juan Pablo Montoya hitting a jet dryer and triggering a massive fireball during the Daytona 500 far longer than they can recall that Matt Kenseth actually won that 2012 season opener.

That puts NASCAR in a very tough position as series officials spent Monday reviewing video and data from several post-race skirmishes at Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR must decide what, if any, punishments are warranted for a sequence of events that has captivated its fan base.

Brad Keselowski, Hamlin and Kenseth — three championship contenders — were all involved in some sort of fracas after the checkered flag fell Saturday night. Keselowski firmly believed Hamlin and Kenseth both had it coming when he first tried to spin Hamlin on the cool-down lap, then hit Kenseth’s car on pit road.

Hamlin admitted to being angry with Keselowski over the way he raced Hamlin over the final two laps, and he brake-checked him to send his message. Keselowski tried to spin him in retaliation but missed, then headed to pit road to deal with Kenseth.

Upset over damage he believed Kenseth had done to his car under yellow with six laps remaining, Keselowski hit Kenseth, which led one of them to run into unwitting victim Tony Stewart.

Both drivers were livid — Stewart backed his car up and into Keselowski’s as payback — and Kenseth hustled into the garage to exact his own justice.

Only Kenseth had to get in line: Hamlin followed Keselowski, and the two cars weaved through a crowded garage area until coming to a stop. Hamlin had to be restrained by crew members from getting to Keselowski when both drivers climbed from their cars.

Keselowski then headed between the Team Penske haulers toward a side door, but was jumped from behind by Kenseth. The melee was quickly broken up, but the visuals of drivers losing their cool became the immediate headline of the race.

Never mind that Kevin Harvick won to earn an automatic berth into the third round of the Chase, or that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a mechanical problem to put his season on the ropes, or that Jimmie Johnson had an in-race verbal spat with his crew chief. Heck, even Danica Patrick’s threat to intentionally wreck Logano was forgotten.

All of it fell to the wayside once drivers started slamming their cars into each other and the always mild-mannered Kenseth had to be peeled off a rival driver.

It should be noted that when second-place finisher Jeff Gordon entered the media center for his post-race obligations, the first words out of his mouth were, “That was awesome!” If there was any doubt he was referring to the post-race fireworks, he threw his arms up in the air in triumph and yelled, “Kenseth!”

He and rookie Kyle Larson then stood under a television and watched — with great delight — the replays of all the skirmishes. Out in the garage, various industry members crowded around a portable monitor to get their own view.

So what is NASCAR to do? Precedent is to fine everybody involved, just as Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears were for fighting in the garage earlier this year, or Harvick was fined for a pit-road confrontation in 2011 or Kurt Busch in 2012. In Busch’s case, he was fined $50,000 for dangerous driving on pit road.

Keselowski could be found guilty of the same crime, and both he and Hamlin could be taken to task for weaving their cars through a dark and crowded garage area after the race. Kenseth could get slapped on the hand for jumping Keselowski between the haulers.

Monetary punishments mean little to drivers at their level, and it won’t hurt their championship chances. As is, Kenseth and Keselowski both need to win Sunday at Talladega to avoid Chase elimination, and that won’t change even if NASCAR docks points for Saturday night. A points penalty would hurt Hamlin, who sits in seventh in the 12-driver field headed into a race in which the bottom four will be dropped from the Chase.

More important, though, is the message NASCAR sends through its actions. Penalties are a deterrent to the drivers to show the emotion that the fans are eating up right now. They can’t act out or settle scores if they’ll be punished every time they do so. But if NASCAR looks the other way, it’s openly embracing behavior that some could argue is too dangerous.

It’s a no-win situation for NASCAR at a time when France is getting exactly what he’s always wanted.

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