LOUDON, N.H. If Johnny Sauter had purposely rammed Matt Kenseth to send him caroming toward the fourth-turn wall midway in last Friday's NASCAR Busch Series race, he probably would have been called off the track for a penalty, then called to the NASCAR hauler for a more formal reprimand.
But since it came on the final lap, the fans at Richmond International Raceway cheered. Sauter went to Victory Lane openly admitting he knocked Kenseth out of the way to win the race.
And NASCAR did nothing.
Although NASCAR continues to hand out fines for fighting, using profanity on pit road and drivers playing bumper cars after a race, it doesn't seem to mind its drivers using their front bumpers as a battering ram late in the race.
''I love rubbin','' Darrell Waltrip said. ''Rubbin' is racing. You drive down under me in the third turn coming to the checkers and we come out of turn four side by side like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch did (at Darlington, S.C., last March) and we're racing for the line, that's a beautiful thing. You run down in the corner behind me and give me a cheap shot and send me up the hill and you go on to win the race, I'm going to be after you.''
Benny Parsons said he retired because he was no longer willing to make dangerous moves on the final lap to win. He said a driver without fear of wrecking somebody, or getting wrecked, no longer has a place in the sport.
Dale Earnhardt made a career out of the bump-and-run pass, including the final lap of the 1999 August race at Bristol, Tenn., that sent race leader Terry Labonte crashing into the backstretch wall.
After the race, Earnhardt grinned when he said, ''I was trying to rattle his cage.''
A year later, Jeremy Mayfield did the same thing to Earnhardt on the final lap at Pocono, Pa. Mayfield then joked he was only trying to rattle Earnhardt's cage.
Ken Schrader said it's obvious NASCAR has a different set of standards for the closing laps than the rest of the race.
''If two guys are racing for the win, like at Darlington back in March, they will understand a little more beating and banging, a little more rubbing on that final lap,'' he said. ''They will put up with a lot more on that last lap than they would, say, 100 laps from the end. You are going for the win. It's not anything goes so much as it is a lot more goes than usual.''
While all the late-race crashes and the problems they create after the race when drivers and teams vent their anger drives television ratings up and sells tickets, many drivers now say the practice has gone too far.
''I think it's out of control. I think it's out of hand,'' Waltrip said. ''I think what happens is we become desensitized to it. I think the fans do the competitors certainly don't, but we see it week in and week out and we start to expect it. I expected Sauter to bump Kenseth out of the way. That's what I expected, and that's what the whole joint was waiting for."
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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