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Hot tempers are heating up NASCAR

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon made so many drivers mad at Infineon Raceway, it would be easier to keep a scorecard of those who had no issue with the four-time NASCAR champion.

Just about everybody was steaming at somebody: Joey Logano wasn't thrilled with Juan Pablo Montoya; Tony Stewart caught an earful from Boris Said's crew chief; and Carl Edwards unleashed his anger at newcomer Jan Magnussen.

And that's just what played out in public!

Following Sunday's race on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., NASCAR got raw emotion from competitors ordinarily branded as corporate robots.

For some time, fans have pined for the old days when drivers feuded and never backed down. They could relate to those hard-nosed, rough-and-tumble men, not the squeaky-clean, sponsor-shilling pretty boys who now occupy most of the top seats in NASCAR.

The combination of conservative, brand-conscious sponsors and NASCAR's desire to eliminate a Wild West mentality sterilized the sport and left fans lamenting the loss of personality.

Spurred by positive fan reaction to last season's monthslong feud between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski -- not to mention the passionate responses, good and bad, to anything Kyle Busch related -- NASCAR began to loosen its reins. With it came the infamous "Boys, have at it and have a good time" edict in January from vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.

Sixteen races into the season, boy, are they having at it.

Rarely does a race end without somebody mad at someone. Only now, after years of containing that anger until drivers were back in the comfort of the motorhome lot, these spats are there for everyone to see.

Carl Edwards, tired of how Keselowski was racing him, intentionally wrecked him at Atlanta as retaliation for an earlier accident. Keselowski's car sailed into the safety fence at Atlanta. When NASCAR let Edwards go with a slap on the wrist, the gloves were officially off.

Hamlin has traded barbs with Busch, who threatened to kill his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate over his radio during the All-Star race. Gordon has publicly criticized four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who felt the need to apologize for contact at Talladega.

Gordon intentionally knocked Matt Kenseth out of his way at Martinsville, and Clint Bowyer ran into Hamlin's car at Dover as retaliation for an earlier incident.

And nobody has forgotten young Logano standing up to Kevin Harvick on pit road at Pocono this month, then emasculating Harvick with his public declaration that Harvick's wife "wears the firesuit in the family."

So it was no surprise to see so many drivers so outspoken at Sonoma.

Among them was Martin Truex Jr., who vowed retaliation against Gordon for wrecking him. There also was Elliott Sadler, who was still upset at Gordon on Monday and posted on his Twitter page: "Some people think they are bigger than the sport itself and want everyone else to lay over. I DISAGREE!!!"

Gordon, for his part, accepted responsibility for what happened with Truex and Sadler. But when it came to contact with Kurt Busch? Not so much.

"Kurt Busch had everything coming to him that I gave him because he gave it to me on the restart before that, so I don't feel sorry about that," Gordon offered.

This is exactly the drama NASCAR had been lacking the last several years.

Sure, the sport is about fast cars and racing hard, but machines don't talk to us and tell us how they feel. That's up to the drivers, and they're finally delivering.

Maybe fans didn't like it when Edwards retaliated against Keselowski, or Logano took his verbal jab at Harvick. But many of racing's most celebrated moments are of such stuff. Remember, folks, the time the late Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte at Bristol, meaning to only "rattle his cage"?

That style of aggressive -- sometimes blatant -- driving has been sorely missed, along with the one-liners the Darrell Waltrips of old had perfected, and the post-race trash talk between rivals.

You may not like the way Gordon raced Sunday or the language one driver used to criticize another, but you have to admit: It's a whole lot more interesting these days.