If NASCAR had a statistical category for "Drivers Most Unlikely to Engage in a Fight," Casey Mears and Marcos Ambrose would likely be at the top of the list.
It's not like those two drivers are wussies, but they're two guys who have long displayed great sportsmanship and are the kind of drivers that turn the other cheek when someone does them wrong.
But after Saturday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, turning the other cheek wound up being the cheek that got punched. After an on-track skirmish during the race, Ambrose and Mears were still miffed at each other.
Rather than having a few choice words, or even respectfully disagreeing with each other and ultimately shaking hands and going their separate ways, Mears and Ambrose got physical with each other. First, Mears pushed Ambrose, who then retaliated with what appeared to be a solid punch to Mears' cheek.
So much for all that turning-the-other-cheek business.
Mears essentially initiated the physical contact by grabbing Ambrose and pushing him several feet, almost as if he was pushing Ambrose to the side so they could talk out their differences away from each other.
Ambrose took so much pushing and then, in return, slugged Mears in the upper left cheek. The blow not only knocked Mears' ballcap off, he could be seen on the video touching the area twice right after Ambrose's right hook.
Now NASCAR has to decide how to handle the incident.
Was Mears wrong for grabbing Ambrose? Was Ambrose wrong for cold-cocking Mears in a situation that probably didn't warrant it? Will NASCAR just let bygones be bygones and force both drivers to apologize to the other and call it a day?
Or will there be penalties arising from the incident either Monday or Tuesday, which are typically the days after a race if and when penalties are normally assessed.
Admittedly, Ambrose and Mears weren't even key cogs in how the race played out. Ambrose finished 18th, with Mears right behind in 19th.
There are some fans—primarily old-time fans—who will see nothing wrong in the fisticuffs (or in this case, since there was only one punch thrown, a fisticuff by Ambrose). They'll harken back to the good, old days when fights in the infield, along pit road or behind team trailers were an accepted part of doing business.
But there will also likely be some fans—probably more recent newcomers to the sport—who will say what Ambrose did was uncalled for. This isn't hockey, after all, where fighting is essentially written into the rules (or at least until the referees and linesmen break things up).
Another element NASCAR will have to look at in determining whether punishment should be meted out or not is whether Mears' and Ambrose's actions were "detrimental to the sport of stock-car racing," the catch-all offense that NASCAR officials can use in determining punishment—or the lack thereof.
NASCAR also has to look at the situation from a completely impartial perspective. Just because Ambrose (16th) and Mears (23rd) are significantly way down in the Sprint Cup standings doesn't mean their actions should be ignored. If it was, say, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch that took a swing at each other, you know darn well somebody—if not both drivers—would pay penance for their actions.
Mears and Ambrose shouldn't be given a free pass just because they're both way down low on the competition and success radar.
Both drivers were wrong—Mears for grabbing and pushing Ambrose, and Ambrose for retaliating with a punch.
At the same time, other than a few bruised feelings—and Mears' tender left cheek—the tete-a-tete should be judged by NASCAR for what it is. If there is any disciplinary action, the punishment should fit the crime.
Bottom line: place both drivers on probation for the next three months and move on.
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