NASCAR loosens restrictions on racers

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When Denny Hamlin took out Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year, it was as blatant as could be.

So blatant that Hamlin laughed and bragged about it on TV immediately after spinning Keselowski. So blatant that it fulfilled Hamlin's threat to wreck his archrival.

Yet all Hamlin got for the incident was a slap on the wrist from NASCAR. He was held in the pits for a one-lap penalty and allowed to continue racing. No fine, no suspension, not even probation.

The following day, in the Sprint Cup season finale, Juan Pablo Montoya retaliated against Tony Stewart for a run-in on the track, sending Stewart for a spin.

The result: A two-lap penalty during the race, which also amounted to a slap on the wrist since Montoya had already wrecked. No fine, no suspension, no probation.

What the heck is going on in this undisciplined, loosely regulated, free-for-all world of NASCAR? Exactly that. NASCAR has loosened the reigns on its highly emotional, fiery competitors, and that, race fans, is a good thing.

In the past, both Hamlin and Montoya would have been warned before their actions escalated into full-fledged incidents. Afterward, they would have faced severe penalties, probably a hefty fine, and at least probation. Instead, NASCAR officials let them slide with a light punishments.

"We gave it a lot of latitude, and then when we finally had to say enough's enough, our reaction to that was a good deal less than it might have been three or four years ago," NASCAR President Mike Helton said.

NASCAR's leniency on Hamlin and Montoya was part of its effort to gradually ease up on its drivers, allowing them to be more aggressive, a bit more physical and a lot more emotional. That effort has now grown into an all-out campaign with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France declaring that he wants more contact on the race track, and he expects to see it.

"This is a contact sport," he said. "We want to see drivers mixing it up. We want to see the emotion of the world's best drivers just as much as everybody else does, and that is the goal for 2010 and beyond."

Or, as NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton declared in announcing that bump-drafting at Daytona and Talladega is now perfectly fine, "Boys, have at it."

What NASCAR officials are hoping to see is racing like it used to be, with drivers beating and banging and denting fenders as they drive like madmen to get to the front.

NASCAR is Dale Earnhardt wrecking Terry Labonte on the final lap at Bristol. It's Rusty Wallace spinning Darrell Waltrip with big money on the line in the all-star race.  It's Petty, Allison, Yarborough and Pearson wrecking each other with the checkered flag in sight. It's Yarborough and the Allisons fighting in the infield grass at Daytona after a wreck robbed them of a chance to win the Daytona 500.

Those are the type of moments that made NASCAR popular -- and those are the type of moments that are missing from racing today. NASCAR doesn't intend to allow drivers to just run all over each other, but it does hope they will bump and bang and mix things up a little, creating some fireworks and some controversy, which helps sell the sport. If things occasionally get out of hand, like they did at Homestead last year, so be it.

The most memorable moments of the past few seasons have been wrecks that led to driver confrontations. ­ Montoya and Kevin Harvick pushing and shoving in the middle of the track at Watkins Glen in 2007; Harvick and Carl Edwards brawling in the Charlotte garage in 2008. It's incidents like that that spark interest in the sport and get fans fired up.

NASCAR doesn't need the sport to turn into professional wrestling, but it needs its stars to show more fire and emotion -- and it starts with more aggressive, more physical racing.

If an incident on the track escalates into some screaming and shouting or pushing and shoving, so be it. NASCAR officials will deal with it quietly in the NASCAR hauler, which Helton, incidentally, says NASCAR expects to use far less driver scolding.

More than anything, what NASCAR and its fans want to see more of is close, side-by-side, bumper-to-bumper racing. Close enough to dent sheet metal and make sparks fly.

"There's an age-old saying that in NASCAR, if you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing," Helton says. "And I think that's what the NASCAR fan, the NASCAR stakeholders, all bought into, and all expect."

Hopefully, NASCAR's anything goes, have at it approach leads to more rubbing, which means better racing.