When NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton uttered the words, “We will say ‘Boys, have at it and have a good time,'” at an otherwise routine Media Tour meeting prior to the start of the Sprint Cup season, little did he suspect they'd live on in infamy. Nor did he suspect they'd come to be regarded as NASCAR's version of “The buck stops here,” or “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
Pemberton's phrase – twisted slightly to “Have at it, boys” – has become the staple of this year's NASCAR vernacular during a wild season of racing in NASCAR's top division. Initially, “Have at it, boys” meant one thing only: Drivers could bump-draft at the two restrictor-plate tracks without fear of NASCAR sanction. But it took just a few races for it to morph into, “Boys Gone Wild, NASCAR Edition.” Anything goes, as long as it's good for The Show.
To recap: Carl Edwards turned Brad Keselowski upside down at Atlanta at 185mph after the two had early race contact that left Edwards' car damaged. Teammates, four-time champions and close friends Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon traded insults over each other's aggressive driving at Talladega and Texas. Teammates and not close friends Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin lobbed verbal haymakers at each other after Hamlin drove Busch into the wall in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte. Their other teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano, has been hit more often than a punch-drunk boxer. He's been roughed up a couple of times by Greg Biffle and got dumped by Kevin Harvick at Pocono. Then, at Infineon Raceway he was struck hard by Juan Pablo Montoya who, it seems, has hit everything but the Florida lottery this year. Gordon, too, ran over half a dozen cars at Infineon.
There has also been some fantastic racing: At New Hampshire Motor Speedway in June, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart put on an exceptionally skilled and nuanced version of the old bump-and-run, trading the top three spots over the final seven laps by muscling each other out of the way.
Then, on July 17 in a Nationwide Series race at Gateway, Ill., “Have at it, boys,” went horribly wrong. First Keselowski bumped Edwards out of the way in Turn 1, taking the lead. He then forced Edwards high in Turn 3 to keep it. As they headed for the checkered flag, Edwards turned hard left, sending Keselowski on a frightening high-speed crash, first into the outside wall, driver's side first, then down to the inside wall where he was rammed at full speed by another car. All told, 10 cars were involved in the wreck.
Edwards was fined $25,000, and docked 60 points, and was put on probation for a second time this year. Faced with the opportunity to throw the book at Edwards, NASCAR instead threw the pamphlet at him with a laughably light fine.
So where does the line get drawn between havin' at it and going over the edge? And is that the same as, “Where should it get drawn?” That's still very much an open question and opinions vary wildly, especially over Edwards vs. Keselowski.ROBIN PEMBERTON
NASCAR vice president of competition
We're going to stand our ground and say, “Boys, get after it. Take the gloves off. Be aggressive.” They're doing a great job. We're having the best racing I can remember seeing in my career…We shouldn't let one or two incidents overshadow that.MARK MARTIN
Driver, Hendrick Motorsports
If everybody adheres to the same code, that's fine. When people get off that code, then it starts to go haywire. And that's why, every once in a while, you see things start to get crossed up because someone got away from the code… There are all different things that happen. There's no way to clear-cut it and make it black and white.LARRY McREYNOLDS
Former crew chief and television analyst for FOX, SPEED and TNT
Feuds, rivalries and wars of words are good for any sport and they're part of what makes people tune in. But in my book, this [Edwards vs. Keselowski] deal has gone beyond a feud or rivalry.
NASCAR could take 600 points from Edwards, fine him $500,000 and put him on probation until the end of 2015, but it doesn't repair those racecars that got torn up behind these two during their fun and games on the last lap. [Those cars belonged to] teams that don't need to be tearing up racecars. This thing went well beyond NASCAR's intentions of “Have at it, boys.”KEVIN HARVICK
Driver, Richard Childress Racing
I probably wouldn't have reacted as kindly as Brad did. I probably would have walked down there and punched him (Edwards) in the mouth.DAVE DESPAIN
Host of SPEED TV's Wind Tunnel
The confusion over “Have at it, boys” continues. Fines and probation are a slap on the wrist. The message here is that intentionally hooking another driver, turning him into the wall and causing a huge wreck is not OK – but then again, it's really not all that bad.JO KOSTER
Classics professor, Winthrop University, 30-year NASCAR fan
The safety equipment is so much better and it's been so long since we've had a serious in-car injury that I think some of the drivers are getting over-confident. We're right on the edge of having a major injury to a competitor or fan and something has to be done to stop that. And pocket-change fines don't really establish a line in the sand that drivers won't cross in the grips of hot emotion.
I agree with penalizing the drivers with points and suspensions, but I also think they should be made to pay to fix the cars they've wrecked. Many of the smaller teams, especially in the Nationwide Series, are barely surviving financially. Maybe if Carl Edwards had to pay those repairs out of his own pocket, he'd think twice before he made such a bonehead move again.JIMMY SPENCERFormer NASCAR driver who broke Kurt Busch's nose after a spat in 2003
Sometimes a bigger bully comes along and kicks your ass. The bigger bully right now is Edwards and I admire him for it.RYAN NEWMAN
Driver, Stewart-Haas Racing
I don't know what probation actually means anymore. We used to get probation for the season. [Now,] when you crash somebody and put them upside down and they almost get killed, you get probation for three races. I don't quite understand that.@AVRILFANGZ
A NASCAR fan on Twitter
Keeping score? Talladega [April 2009, another Edwards vs. Keselowski clash] was Carl's fault. If not for the safety,
Carl could have killed himself, and killed Brad twice.JEFF GORDON
Driver, Hendrick Motorsports
Three, four or five years ago, I'd have thought absolutely that NASCAR would have done something – maybe taken the win away, docked points, given a fine or something. Today, it's letting guys race.
That means that I'm sure you'll want to watch the future Nationwide races and those guys battling one another, and in the Cup Series as well. You just know there's going to be more to come.”ROGER CURTIS,
President of Michigan International Speedway
The “Have at it” rule is really just an admission that perhaps NASCAR was too strict in the past.
I don't expect an overnight rush of ticket sales or TV ratings because NASCAR's decision is really about allowing rivalries to be created and fostered like we had in the old days. Those things take time. It's the right decision by NASCAR but we have to be patient for results.The bottom line?
“Have at it, boys,” remains what NASCAR President Mike Helton likes to call “a work in progress,” meaning it could be subject to revision or outright elimination. Or not. But with NASCAR's TV ratings down sharply this season, this policy is what steroids were to baseball a decade ago – a way to juice the game and create manufactured excitement. Now, the damage that steroids have done in baseball has been well documented. And to be fair to NASCAR, steroids are illegal, while aggressively racing a stock car isn't.
Still, no one knows where this will end. Will NASCAR become so concerned about ratings that the racing will be as exaggerated and buffoonish as the WWE pro wrestling? Will a serious injury force NASCAR to tone things down? Or will drivers take it into their own hands to police things with a well-placed off-camera fist applied to a competitor's face every so often? Stay tuned, because the jury is still very much out.
Have at it, boys.
HARVICK OUT OF HARM'S WAY
With one notable exception, Kevin has steered clear of controversy
The big winner in NASCAR's “Have at it, boys,” policy is Kevin Harvick, who has piled up points in the Sprint Cup standings…and the court of public relations, too.
Over the years, Harvick has had some highly publicized confrontations – nearly coming to blows with Ricky Rudd at Richmond and actually getting parked for a race at Martinsville, in the wake of roughing up Coy Gibbs, the former driver and son of team owner Joe Gibbs.
But this year, Harvick has mostly stayed out of harm's way, letting everyone else beat each other up while he amassed a large points lead. Even the one huge dust-up Harvick had, turned into a big victory of sorts for him.
Harvick and Joey Logano have tangled several times this year, culminating at Pocono Raceway in June, when Harvick dumped Logano at the end of the race. Egged on by father Tom Logano, Joey confronted Harvick's crew on pit road after the race and before turning to the TV cameras to say: “I don't know what his problem is with me, but it's probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do. It's probably not his fault.”
In a move of equal parts brilliant guerilla marketing and inspired whimsy, within 48 hours, DeLana Harvick was selling T-shirts with the inscription, “I wear the firesuit in this family!”
Meanwhile, on track, Harvick has kept his nose clean as chaos ensued all around him. That just might earn him that elusive first Sprint Cup championship.