My, how a race changes things. It may very well be that there’s a New World Order in the realm of NASCAR 2010, where the boys are allowed to “Have At It”- whether it be to get ahead or administer their own brand of vigilante justice.
Who, in today’s NASCAR, is the most likely to use his bumper and stir things up? In an earlier day, names like Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, or Robby Gordon may have come to mind. But what about now? The three just mentioned have aged, and arguably mellowed a bit over the years. Each now experience the responsibilities of ownership, which certainly has a way of making one see things differently.
Here’s my list. This is in no way suggesting the following drivers are dirty by nature, or that this is anything more than one fan’s opinion. You may have your own, and I’d be interested to know them. An old INXS tune surmised that every single one of us has “The Devil Inside,” so it may just be that every adrenaline junkie piloting one of these high speed missiles qualifies. Who knows?
When something hot is brewing on the track, I generally figure one or more of the following to be in the middle of it….
10. Matt Kenseth- Are you serious? Yes. Someone who knows from Wisconsin “back in the day” set me straight on the origins of the moniker “Matt The Brat.” According to this sage, Kenseth’s version of the “bump ‘n’ run” is more like the “touch and excuse me.” Ask Jeff Gordon if you need more information.
Kenseth’s tactics are more about gaining track position than retaliation. I mean, there’s not going to be this long list of guys he’s put in the wall intentionally. On the other hand, Kenseth was none too bashful about exacting a little revenge on David Gilliland a couple of seasons ago at Bristol. In true Kensethian form, He just delivered one swift blow, and moved on.
9. Kurt Busch- The years have taken some of the edge off, but his body of work earns him a spot. He’s mixed it up with Jimmy Spencer, Tony Stewart, his crew chief and even his boss.
He acts like a guy who genuinely tries to behave himself, but his competitive nature still gets the best of him at times.
8. Tony Stewart- The fire inside Smoke has gone from five to three alarm. Not wishing to commit sacrilege here, but to me, Stewart may be the one most like Ol’ Man Earnhardt in the garage. If something’s not right, you can count on Stewart to speak up. You may not always like how he presents what he says, but even his competitors offer him a place of respect.
He may not be engaging in the anger management class-inducing antics from days of yore. All “Billy Bad Butt” got from Stewart at Charlotte was a talking to. I’ll never forget how one NASCAR historian said “Tony Stewart has 12 personalities. Nine of them are intelligent and funny and the other three want to hit you in the mouth.”
7. Kevin Harvick- Oh yeah, he’s toned it down some, most of the warfare he conducts now is with his mouth. I’m not saying that’s all bad either. Harvick has had his little war of words with Carl Edwards that “Mr. Ed’” attempted to escalate, and Happy has even taken on his own boss over the radio.
Harvick is not unlike Tony Stewart in that it’s not what is said, but how it’s said. Harvick has offered up his own biting commentary about drug testing in NASCAR, and he wasn’t shy in opining about Edwards’ fine in comparison to some of the penance he’s paid.
6. Robby Gordon- Fans won’t forget soon Gordon’s little deal with Marcos Ambrose in the Nationwide Series race up in Montreal. It was also “Flash” who initiated the contact with Joey Logano at Watkins Glen to trigger the “stupid is forever” comment.
He doesn’t run up front enough in Cup racing to mix it up like he used to, speaking something to the fact he picks his battles now. These days, given his precarious place in the points standings, I don’t think we’ll see much aggression until he rectifies that situation.
5. Brad Keselowski- Is he a hard charger, or indiscriminate? A dirty racer? No, but it sure seems like any car he’s in is in the middle of something. More than anything, he has EARNED his place on this list, because he is the kind of guy you have to be aware of it’s the last lap, and he’s on your bumper. Is it a case of “bad” being good?
4. Kyle Busch- Shrub is a little more calculated about his use of the chrome horn than those ranked ahead of him. His reputation has as much to do with his squabbles with his crew chief over the radio as they do with any racer-related conflict.
This is just an opinion, but it’s mine: Busch cares more about what fans think than he’d have us believe. Think about his comments on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s popularity. I detect jealousy there. By the same token, I give him credit for having a sense of humor between the mock cheers and bows.
3. Denny Hamlin- If there’s contact somewhere, there’s a good chance the #11 of Denny Hamlin’s in it. To be fair, sometimes the “incidents” he’s been in have been due to misjudged clearance, but don’t tell David Reutimann that. Whether or not “Beak” is still “mad as heck” remains to be seen.
Not only is he not shy about using his front bumper to advance a position, Hamlin has also demonstrated viz a viz his run-in with Brad Keselowski, that he’s not shy about spinning someone. You get lots of raw emotion with Denny Hamlin, it’s alternately good and bad.
2. Carl Edwards- Perception is everything where Cousin Carl’s image is concerned. If you really think about it, nothing about Edwards has really changed that much.
Edwards has beaten doors with Dale Jr., he’s traded paint with Kyle Busch, and then there was that feigned punch at HIS OWN TEAMMATE. In a way, Carl Edwards is the Tony Stewart of the Blue Oval set. You can just imagine the little angel sitting one of Mr. Pepsodent’s broad shoulders, and a little stinker of a devil on the other. To his defense, he says he’s just standing up for what’s right. The problem for Edwards is if you throw a rock at him, he’ll retaliate with a bazooka. You race him hard, he’ll race you harder.
1. Juan Pablo Montoya- Here’s what sets the man apart. JPM is the one guy who doesn’t give two hoots about what any other driver or fan thinks of him. He’s taken on everyone from Kevin Harvick to Kyle Busch, and heck, even his own brand new teammate, Mr. Sensitivity himself- Jamie Mc Murray. Other drivers say they don’t care, though other comments they make betray that. Juan Pablo Montoya suffers not the burden of sainthood.
The dude has habanero sauce flowing in his veins, and being more competitive has made him, well…more competitive. What Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are to other fans, Montoya is to me. My guilty pleasure. I think his fire and passion is good for the sport.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to slip into “points racing” mode to get in the Chase. JP was too quiet last year.
HONORABLE MENTION- On any given day, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are worthy of consideration. There was a time Gordon would put his own grandmother in the wall if she were in the way of a win. Johnson? Just ask Kurt Busch, circa Sonoma, 2009. Clint Bowyer has a certain subtlety about moving objects out of his way, and he’s also not bashful about sharing a negative opinion of a fellow competitor from time to time. Just ask Michael Waltrip.