Mad Race

Stakes are high, tempers are short, and the price a driver pays for a hit hasn't gone down. Just ask Ryan Newman.

Auto Racing

August 31, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Nextel Cup driver Ryan Newman could have been sitting pretty this week had it not been for a case of road rage at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night in the Sharpie 500.

Yesterday, he feasted on steamed crabs at Harborplace and considered the events of the weekend that cost him valuable points and left him with only a 31-point cushion with two races to go in the race to make The Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship.

The incident, an intentional crash on Lap 318, wasn't exactly out of the ordinary in Cup racing but caught him by surprise nonetheless.

He had been running 11th and moving toward the front when his car began to tighten on Lap 301. In front of him was veteran driver Dale Jarrett, the 1999 champion and a man known to be a reasonable sort.

"I got in close on him to get through the corner," Newman said. "I didn't mean to hit him. But I did. I told my spotter immediately to tell Jarrett's team what happened and I was making a mental note to call him Sunday morning to apologize."

But 17 laps later, Jarrett retaliated.

"I mean, he intentionally dumped me," said Newman, his eyes growing large with disbelief even three days later.

The crash left Newman in 39th place and eroded his 122-point cushion to 31 points over 11th-place Matt Kenseth.

"After that, there is no sense talking," he continued. "You're not going to call someone who does that to you. I didn't think he'd react that way, but I guess you never know.

"If it had happened at a short track, there would have been a fistfight all the way to the local McDonald's drive-through."

There have been fistfights after Cup races, too, as drivers settled their differences after a race. The most watched and most memorable of those came in 1979, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison and his brother Bobby all came to blows in the Daytona International Speedway infield during the final lap of the Daytona 500 after Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked while racing for the lead.

There have been many other memorable moments, too. Remember when Dale Earnhardt Sr. took out Terry Labonte on the way to winning at Bristol in 1999? Remember when Kevin Harvick chased Ricky Rudd right into the garage area after a dispute at Richmond International Raceway a couple of years ago? And when Jimmy Spencer punched Kurt Busch right in the kisser before Busch had a chance to get out of his racecar at Michigan, after Busch laughed over his team radio that he had tried to take Spencer out but missed?

Cup racing has always been filled with intense, physical moments. It's an intense, physical sport.

And last season NASCAR, the sanctioning body, turned up the Bunsen burner of intensity when it created The Chase to the Nextel Cup.

The Chase is part of a new format in which teams compete over the first 26 races of the season to qualify to battle for the championship over the final 10 races.

With the number of qualifying races having dwindled to two - at California Speedway Sunday and the following Saturday night at Richmond, Va. - even the most even-tempered competitor can lose his composure.

Newman will tell you, though, The Chase hasn't really changed anything. Every time a driver drives onto the track for a race he is determined to do the same thing he has always done - try to win the race.

"The Chase hasn't changed that," Newman said. "Whether you're in The Chase or not, you are out to win or get the best possible finish you can. Two years ago, before The Chase, I was crashed by Kevin Harvick at Homestead, and it cost me a chance to finish fourth instead of sixth. That was a million-dollar difference right there.

"There are a lot of things in racing you have to understand and accept, and sometimes you don't want to."

Emotionally, however, Newman said racing is more intense than ever. Not just because of The Chase, but because a sponsor's commitment has grown from $800,000 to $10 million or $20 million, because the demands from fans have increased and because a team's profile is so much higher.

"The emotions you feel have increased accordingly, I think," he said. "I didn't race in the old days, so I don't know that from personal experience, but that's what I think."

So, though Jarrett's reaction caught Newman by surprise, it didn't totally mystify him.

"It might have been because of The Chase and because he's not performing the way he wants to the last year or the last year and a half," Newman said.

Jarrett hasn't won since 2003, is on a 94-race losing streak and missed The Chase last year.

"I know I put him in a bad position," Newman said of hitting Jarrett. "But it was unfair for him to put me in that position, too. I wasn't trying to hit Dale Jarrett.

"I told myself going into that race to keep my nose clean, and I didn't do it. I put myself in position to be retaliated against. Whenever I've gotten run into from behind, I always want to say, `Hey, there is a middle pedal to use!' But I hit him. It was what you call an accident. They do happen."

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