HAMPTON, Ga. – NASCAR wanted a first-class rivalry. On Sunday, it got one.
But did it go too far?
The culmination of a year-long conflict between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski came to a head at Atlanta Motor Speedway when the No. 99 Ford clipped the back end of the No. 12 Dodge and sent it flipping airborne into Turn 1 on Lap 323.
Keselowski, who was on course to earn his first top-10 finish of the season, ended up in the infield care center and finished 36th. Edwards was parked for "aggressive driving" and finished 39th.
The feud had been brewing between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski since April when the rookie turned the No. 99 on the money lap at Talladega for his first career Cup win.
Still, Edwards was just one competitor in a long line of well-earned enemies waiting to exact revenge on Keselowski. (By now, Keselowski should be conditioned to looking in his rearview mirror. He will need it for the next two races at Bristol and Martinsville)
Keselowski's bouts with Denny Hamlin in both the Nationwide and the Sprint Cup Series last year were well documented. The trash talking escalated throughout the season as did the altercations on the racetrack.
Juan Pablo Montoya warned Keselowski's previous Cup crew chief Roy McCauley not to bring his best equipment to the track in the closing races because if Hamlin did not take out the No. 12 car -- someone would.
"I said that last year because he wrecked a lot of people," Montoya said. "I'm sure a lot of people wanted to pay him back. Looking at the TV, somebody did."
And when Keselowski clipped the No. 99 on Lap 40 in Turn 2 on Sunday, Edwards reached his boiling point. Considering that Edwards had 90 minutes to stew about it, the retaliation did not come as a surprise.
"We were on the restart and I was going for the bottom," Edwards said following the first wreck. "I knew Brad was peeking inside, but I thought he'd give me just a little bit of room and he didn't and we ended up overlapping. I had it saved and I guess I got into (Joey Logano) at the very top of the racetrack. ... It's so frustrating for a number of reasons, most of which is that I love racing here. I love this racetrack and I want to be out there driving right now.
"I know Brad has made his career on being super-aggressive. We both had a part in it and it's not his fault, but it's just a little too aggressive overall, I think, for that early in the race and caused us to wreck."
Keselowski saw the incident differently.
"He cut down on me on a restart, and I lifted (off the accelerator), and I couldn't lift fast enough for him," Keselowski said. "I lifted for him to let him in, but I was there. I don't know what more you could do.
"I apologized to him, but there's nothing I could do in that situation."
For Edwards, Keselowski's act of contrition was hardly enough.
It took the No. 99 crew 151 circuits to put the car back together and Edwards another 132 circuits to catch Keselowski and dump him.
The replay leading up to the altercation showed Edwards nipping at the No. 12 Dodge on Lap 322, but he wasn't able to catch the rear bumper until a lap later when he dumped the driver directly in front of owner Roger Penske. FOX TV commentators later observed from the in-car camera that Edwards turned the wheel sharply in Keselowski's direction.
"To come back and just intentionally wreck someone -- that's not cool," Keselowski said. "It could have killed somebody in the grandstands. I know that it's a little ironic that it's got me saying that, but at least I didn't do it intentionally when it happened.
"It's going to be interesting to see how NASCAR reacts to it. They have the ball. If they're going to allow people to intentionally wreck each other at tracks this fast, we will hurt someone, either in the cars or in the grandstand."
Before the 2010 season started NASCAR's competition director Robin Pemberton evoked the "have at it boys" sentiment to the competitors.
On Sunday, Pemberton said, "It looked like it could have been a payback from the No. 99 on the No. 12."
"We talked with Carl after the race and we have an understanding about it," Pemberton said. "We will talk internally again as a group Monday or Tuesday of this week and make any decision on if there will be any other actions that we will take."
Certainly, when cars are running in excess of 190 miles per hour, lives on the track and in the stands are at risk. Lance McGrew, crew chief for the No. 88 team who had the first pitbox and a front row seat called the incident "just as blatant as wrecking somebody" that he'd ever seen. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s spotter (and Keselowski's Nationwide Series spotter) T.J. Majors replied, "He just about ended up in the stands".
Still, there is a question of honor in the garage. Edwards is no one's patsy. He's shown time and again that he won't take crap from his own teammates let alone a newcomer that should still be wearing a yellow stripe on his bumper. But how far should NASCAR allow a situation to escalate before it reaches the danger zone?
"Brad knows the deal between him and I," Edwards said after the race. "The scary part was his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected. At the end of the day, we're out here to race and people have to have respect for one another and I have a lot of respect for people's safety. I wish it wouldn't have gone like it did, but I'm glad he's OK and we'll just go on and race some more and maybe him and I won't get in anymore incidents together. That would be the best thing. I'm just glad everybody is alright."
Yes, Keselowski was a bit dazed after the wreck but walked to the ambulance. And fortunately no fans were injured in the stands. NASCAR has long allowed the competitors to settle their battles on the racetrack. But the sanctioning also knows when to neutralize a situation that's gotten out of hand.
This should be one of those times.