It happened in the very first Chase for the Sprint Cup race.
CUP: Just Racing or Dirty Driving?
The date was Sept. 19, 2004, and the race was the Sylvania 300 at Loudon, N.H. It was the first season of the new Chase format, and Loudon hosted the kickoff. It was an all-new and fresh way to decide NASCAR’s champion, and one of the unknowns in the days approaching the 10-race series opener was how the 10 drivers in the Chase would be able to race among themselves while in the middle of a 43-car field.
Would non-Chase drivers cloud the waters by injecting themselves into the middle of the on-track discussion?
The answer was yes, and it came rather quickly.
Non-Chase drivers Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle tangled early in the race. Gordon, disturbed by that activity, called payback on Biffle later in the race, wrecking him with a well-placed bump. Unfortunately, Biffle’s spinning car also took out Chase drivers Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield.
Mayfield finished 35th in the race, and Stewart was hit with a 39th-place finish. Neither fully recovered from the Loudon kick in the pants as they watched Kurt Busch run to the first Chase championship.
Is payback hell? It can be, even for the innocent.
This could be a critical matter in the runup to the Chase over the next four weeks and, more importantly, in the Chase itself as a dozen drivers try to outrun each other while they play dodgeball with the rest of the field.
“I think it’s something to watch out for any given week with the Chase certainly coming in or looming in the next few weeks,” said Brad Keselowski, who knows something about this particular issue from deep personal experience. “I would not doubt for one second that at some point some kind of payback scenario will affect how the Chase unfolds.”
Keselowski is Exhibit A in this year’s payback portfolio. He began the season dueling with Denny Hamlin, but that matchup was quickly forgotten when tension between Keselowski and Carl Edwards accelerated into Edwards bumping Keselowski in a couple of dangerous on-track incidents, the second of which practically sent Keselowski’s father on a manhunt for Edwards.
The Edwards-Special K imbroglio has been the ugly centerpiece of a season of discontent. And now, with the riches and exposure of Chase spots and, ultimately, the championship beckoning, there is a long list of drivers looking for – and/or expecting – payback of one sort or another.
“The potential is always there for it,” said Jimmie Johnson, one of the guys on those lists. “Payback happened at Loudon a few years back and took out a Chase contender or two [Mayfield and Stewart]. But I think it’s always been in our sport. That risk has always been there.”
Johnson, too, knows the topic. In fact, he should be placed high on the list of Those Who Might Receive Payback in the coming weeks.
Johnson has ignited Kurt Busch’s anger on several occasions this season, most recently at Pocono when Busch said Johnson shoved him off the track, starting a major crash. Johnson said he was trying to bump-draft Busch.
Others on the hitlist:
• Kevin Harvick. Harvick’s feud with Joey Logano already has blossomed into a near-brawl on pit road. Logano and Harvick have been all smiles and touchy-feely recently, but no one would be surprised if Logano, a driver outside the Chase, took the opportunity to throw a fender at Harvick, the points leader, during the Chase.
• Jeff Gordon. For a driver who has been compared to a patient artist on the race track, Gordon certainly was able to irritate a flock of his competitors a few weeks back with some extremely questionable moves at Infineon Raceway. Chief among them was Martin Truex Jr., who basically promised retaliation but is still waiting in the weeds.
• Carl Edwards. Both he and Keselowski have talked positively about their relationship since The Recent Unpleasantness, but don’t be misled. There remains real resentment between these two. And Edwards probably is the last driver in the garage area who would even give a thought to backing down from a challenge.
• Tony Stewart. Stewart muscled Boris Said into a big crash at Watkins Glen, ruining another steady road-course performance for the Guy With Big Hair. Stewart had no apologies afterward, although Said and others couldn’t figure out Tony’s move. Said might not be around in most of the rest of the season’s races, but the Red Bull team guys haven’t forgotten.
• AJ Allmendinger. The Dinger managed the unusual at Pocono, irritating both of his Richard Petty Motorsports teammates in the same incident. Attempting to block a pass by Kasey Kahne on the race’s last lap, Allmendinger sent Kahne into a wild race on the grass, starting a multi-car wreck that also involved Elliott Sadler. Sadler and Kahne are departing RPM at the end of the season. A good-bye bump for Allmendinger, perhaps?
Johnson, driving in pursuit of a fifth straight championship, said payback is talked about more than it’s actually put into play. In the days after the Pocono incident, Busch continued to blame Johnson and tossed in a cutting comment about the “pretty boys” of Hendrick Motorsports.
“I find that a lot of guys are taking opportunities to say more and be more vocal,” he said, “but I don’t see a lot of that on the track. Even with Kurt and I after Pocono, we both had some fun with what we said, but you have respect for each other on track.
“I see a lot of guys free to speak their minds. And, yes, we have seen some hard racing and contact. But, at the end of the day, we know what was intentional. That risk has been there all along. I don’t see it being a lot different.”
Team owner Roger Penske, who will have Kurt Busch in the race for the championship, said on-track retaliation is frowned upon.
“I would be very disappointed if a driver took us out, and I wouldn’t expect that from our driver, either,” he said. “We had the situation with Brad and Carl, and we were very disappointed with what happened at Pocono [between Busch and Johnson]. I don’t think there was any reason Jimmie was trying to wreck him.
“Those are things you talk about afterward. If it’s deliberate, I think NASCAR is ready to take action.”
CUP: Just Racing or Dirty Driving?
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.