Countdown To Tragedy: Is NASCAR Looking for the Next Dale Earnhardt?

Jeff Leadbeater@reevesarmyocContributor IJuly 19, 2010

MADISON, IL - JULY 17: Brad Keselowski driver of the #22 Discount Tire Dodge reacts to getting into a wreck on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway International Raceway on July 17, 2010 in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

NASCAR put itself on a precarious path on March 8, 2010.

That is the day they gave Carl Edwards a three-race probation and no further punishment for spinning out Brad Keselowski at the Sprint Cup Kobalt Tools 500 in Atlanta, forcing the latter's car to crash.

NASCAR refused to suspend Edwards, citing that they were permitting drivers to "police themselves on the track," allowing for more "hard driving."

Intentionally spinning another car out is not "hard driving." It's tantamount to attempted murder.

Carl Edwards appears to have it in for Brad Keselowski since the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega, when Keselowski accidentally bumped Edwards as both their cars were side-by-side racing for the checkered flag. Edwards' car bounced off that of Ryan Newman and went airborne and ground into the security fence.

While the car stayed on the track and Edwards himself was unharmed—he got out and jogged to the finish line, Talladega Nights-style—shrapnel from the crash injured eight spectators.

Obviously the punishment, or lack thereof, for the 2010 incident has emboldened Carl Edwards. At the Nationwide Series race in Madison, Illinois, this past Saturday, Edwards spun Keselowski going to the checkered flag. Keselowski was then T-boned by Shelby Ward, and took out an additional eight cars.

Edwards claims he was not the aggressor, and blames Keselowski for all three incidents. However, he stated both times that he spun Keselowski on purpose. Many analysts are starting to believe that inexperience on the part of Keselowski is playing less or no role in these succeeding incidents.

NASCAR has decided not to punish Edwards at all for this latest incident.

Obviously, NASCAR wants "hard driving" so it can stem the erosion of the TV and live race day audiences that has occurred with the current tough economic times. But allowing drivers to intentionally crash each other out is only inviting tragedy live on television.

Could it be that NASCAR sees the HANS device, the head and neck restraint system whose use was mandated following the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and SAFER barriers as a cloak of invincibility for its drivers?

If that is the case, then NASCAR is only inviting the next tragedy, and it will come sooner rather than later. The proper analogy is that of the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic .

Not to mention that intentional crashes don't merely endanger the drivers. They need only look at the 2009 Aaron's 499, the incident that started this mess, to see that.

What happens if the next one kills several dozen spectators? What happens if the aftermath takes out Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?

Forget about Brad Keselowski. Can NASCAR afford to intentionally endanger its biggest names?

I can only imagine the press conference when Mike Helton tries to explain that the next tragedy was just the result of "hard racing."

Hard racing isn't a bad thing, but NASCAR's tacit approval of vigilante racing in general, and Carl Edwards' grudge in particular, has only made the sport a ticking time bomb. Unless somebody stops this, death is waiting at the next turn.

And it will be played out in front of a live television audience.