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Hefferon: Fight garners more attention than race (Nov. 14)

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Johnny Football. Ben Roethlisberger. Mike D’Antoni.

There were plenty of big stories across the wide world of sports this weekend, blowing up ESPN and the Twitterverse alike. So when I heard from multiple friends and saw highlights on Sunday’s SportsCenter about, of all things, NASCAR ¬- well, I was more surprised than a hooked catfish.

But sure enough, the cult racing circuit garnered a relative plateful of coverage dedicated to the AdvoCare 500 in Phoenix, the penultimate race of NASCAR’s 10-event “playoffs” – the Chase for the Cup.

The reason for the attention though was far from the race itself.

It was instead centered on a late-race scuffle between Clint Bowyer, who was competing for his first-ever championship, and Jeff Gordon, who intentionally crashed Bowyer to knock him out of contention. Upon returning to the pits, Bowyer’s crew jumped Gordon, and soon a full-out brawl had broken out, with tires and haymakers flying everywhere. Bowyer was late to the party, but made a full sprint from his car to Gordon’s hauler, where he charged Gordon and sparked more shoving still.

If you haven’t seen it, the sheer inanity of it warrants a trip to YouTube. It was fun to watch, fun to talk about, and the rough-and-tumble, boys-will-be-boys epitome of the sport’s appeal to fans nationwide.

Unfortunately for NASCAR though, it also represents its biggest obstacle to growth.

Because of all the hoopla over the punches thrown off the track, barely a word made it in edgewise about the heavyweight showdown that’s been going down on it.

Jimmy Johnson, winner of five of the last six Sprint Cup Championships, has been heralded as one of the greatest drivers ever to grace the nation’s banked curves. But he has also been accused of taking much of the intrigue and interest out of the sport – his campaigns too dominant, his personality too polished.

Throughout the Chase though, he’s been neck-and-neck with a hotshot young driver who is far from a household name: Brad Keselowski. And Keselowski is exactly the type of star NASCAR needs.

After paying his dues and excelling over seven years in the Nationwide Series – the AAA minor league of stock car racing – Keselowski broke into the Sprint Cup under the tutelage of fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. At 28-years-old, he is immensely talented but also undeniably reckless on the track, something that has made him enemies among other drivers but endeared him to the circuit’s rabid fan base.

Keselowski also knows how to utilize the media. He often spouts off in expletive-filled post-race interviews – which is par for the course – but also leads all NASCAR-only drivers in Twitter followers, mostly thanks to his tweets during the Daytona 500 this year. (He keeps his phone in his pocket when he races and only writes during stoppages. But still pretty dang cool, nonetheless.)

He’s a driver for this generation, and he’s in the middle of a transcendent breakout season. After wrestling with Johnson for the past nine races, Keselowski now sits comfortably 20 points ahead going into the season’s final contest at Homestead in Miami, and can win the Cup there with a finish of 15th or higher.

But because many fans, and most certainly the nation, care more about the spectacle than the sport, it might not matter.
After Sunday’s dustup between Gordon and Bowyer, ESPN posted a poll on whether or not fighting was good for NASCAR. All 50 states said yes.

And in the sport’s role of entertainment, it most certainly is an awesome thing to watch. People prefer talking about crashes to talking about chassis. Hard punches to high passes. Left hooks to left turns.

But because this fighting is the sport’s main appeal nationally, the racing itself gets buried.

If Keselowski wins this weekend, it could be a huge win for racing and NASCAR, as well.

But unless he wrestles Danica Patrick in the infield after the race, it probably won’t matter.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer,