Three thoughts on NASCAR’s penalties from Charlotte

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1. This is not what Tony Stewart needed.

Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, was cleared of criminal charges stemming from the August sprint car accident that killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.

But not before his name and character took a beating from a good part of the American public.

While NASCAR Nation, by and large, has been quick to welcome Smoke back, there’s a group just as big that believes Stewart has gotten away with murder.

And that latter group may have just gotten more ammo today when NASCAR penalized Stewart $25,000 for backing into Brad Keselowski in the moments after Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Keselowski, who had just tangled on the track with Denny Hamlin during the cool-down lap, then proceeded to hit the side of Matt Kenseth’s car and the rear end of Stewart’s at the entrance of pit road.

Stewart took exception to the impact, threw his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet in reverse, and delivered an impact of his own to Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford.

This incident and the fatal one that took place on Aug. 9 in upstate New York between Stewart and Ward are completely different.

But will that stop the anti-Stewart crowd from connecting the two incidents together and attack him as they did back in August?

Will that stop the Ward family from doing the same, perhaps using Saturday’s incident as evidence in a civil suit against him?

The overarching message in NASCAR’s penalties against Stewart and Keselowski (who was fined a bigger sum of $50,000 and, like Stewart, put on four races’ worth of probation) is that using the car as a weapon, no matter the circumstances, is unacceptable.

Fair enough.

And you can definitely make an argument that considering the aforementioned beating he took in the court of public opinion, Stewart should have just taken the shot from Keselowski on Saturday night and avoided any form of confrontation.

But compared to Hamlin, Keselowski, and Matt Kenseth’s respective actions in Saturday’s post-race dust-up, you can also argue that Stewart’s actions were the least offensive in nature.

For him to get fined and put on probation while Hamlin and Kenseth escaped any form of punishment at all is a bit tough to take.

2. A fight is a fight. Right?

Following the April race at Richmond International Raceway, Marcos Ambrose slugged Casey Mears after the latter had shoved him. Both Ambrose and Mears were fined (Ambrose, $25,000; Mears, $15,000) and put on probation for a month.

So, you’d figure a punishment was coming for Kenseth after he attacked Keselowski from behind on Saturday and put him in a headlock, right?

Wrong. Kenseth got away from the whole thing clean. But how?

NASCAR on NBC contributor Nate Ryan revealed a possible answer in his USA TODAY report: The sanctioning body reviewed video of the Kenseth-Keselowski incident and determined that neither man had thrown punches at each other.

But wasn’t it still a fight? Kenseth did put his hands on Keselowski, after all.

Furthermore, today’s decision doesn’t seem to follow precedence set by the Ambrose-Mears tilt. It’s also bound to make fans think that had Stewart just driven to the garage after being hit on pit road by Keselowski, waited for him, and then socked him, he wouldn’t have been penalized.

Meanwhile, drivers in the garage may now be making the following mental note: “If there comes a time to throw down, do not use your fists…You may be better off using your legs and your feet.”

3. And what about Denny Hamlin?

Hamlin himself admitted to brake-checking Keselowski down the backstretch on the cool-down lap after they had raced hard against each other in the last two laps of the race.

Keselowski promptly attempted to spin him in Turn 3, but couldn’t do it. Then, after Keselowski had his run-in with Kenseth and Stewart on pit road, Hamlin chased Keselowski through the garage in his car.

Keselowski and Stewart were penalized for violating Section 12-4.9 of this year’s NASCAR rule book: “Behavioral penalty – involved in a post-race incident.”

Sure seems like Hamlin was involved in a post-race incident to me. But, like Kenseth, he was not fined or put on probation.

In the meantime, Hamlin probably owes a few steak dinners to the crew members that kept him from going after Keselowski once he got out of his car.

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”