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OVERHEATING

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison fighting Cale Yarborough in the infield at the conclusion of the 1979 Daytona 500 is an image galvanized by the first live television broadcast of a NASCAR race.

Twenty-three years later, Kevin Harvick leaps over a car in the pits at Bristol, Tenn., locks a grip on Greg Biffle and unleashes his anger over what had happened over the previous few hours.

Hotheaded behavior has been a part of stock-car racing since its inception. More than two decades after NASCAR’s most famous fight, television’s role is bigger than ever. It magnifies every moment with cameras in every corner, recording every push and shove on the race track, every expletive shouted in anger in the garage.

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Will it happen again? Yes. Will it happen this weekend in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway? Let’s just say that Biffle and Harvick are in the race, so don’t discount anything.

“Confrontations are going on less,” said veteran driver Rusty Wallace, who got in a heated exchange with Ricky Rudd last year in Delaware. “The reason you hear about it more is because of the TV coverage. They have live TV and radio shows every night. They’ll talk about it for two weeks.”

But are such heated, finger-pointing, testosterone-pumping confrontations bad for the sport?

Depends on whom you ask. Cal Wells, owner of the Tide Ford, doesn’t think so. Ricky Craven, who drives that car, does.

“Getting on TV and barking and swearing at someone is something you’re always going to regret,” Craven said. “It’s not reasonable to act that way and think you’re going to have any future in the business. I’ve always believed you stand up for what you believe in, or you stand for nothing.

“But every one of us has the potential to lose our temper, and how you act in those few minutes is very important, and the damage that can be done can offset months or years of progress or credibility you’ve made. That’s part of the consideration I try to give [to my actions].”

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Wallace, last year’s race winner at Fontana, said physical contact among drivers is rare, and it’s the younger drivers who tend to get involved.

The 1984 rookie of the year said the Harvick-Biffle showdown “was common practice in the old days. NASCAR has gotten polished.”

Wells finds little fault with Harvick confronting Biffle, but plenty for the rough driving in a truck race a few weeks later that led to Harvick’s probation for the rest of the year, being parked for the next day’s Winston Cup race in Martinsville, Va., and a $35,000 fine. For what it’s worth, Andy Hillenburg earned $35,405 for finishing last in the race that Harvick missed.

“Taking care of it outside the car is better than taking care of it on the track where you’re ramming into people,” Wells said. “It’s not that I condone fighting, because I don’t. Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon and Ricky Craven are who they are, and Ricky doesn’t get in fistfights; that’s the way he is.

“Just like Bobby Labonte.”

Jim Hunter began following NASCAR in the early 1960s as a writer for the Atlanta Journal, was president of Darlington Raceway for nine years and is now NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications. He says Labonte, Johnny Benson and Mark Martin are probably the least likely of Winston Cup’s drivers to get caught in a postrace fray.

“Professionals and gentlemen,” Hunter said. “Some drivers are more high strung than others. Tony Stewart is high strung. Kevin Harvick is high strung. Jimmy Spencer is definitely high strung.

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“All of them, at this level, when they start the race on Sunday are ready to go and aren’t going to give an inch.”

And that’s ultimately the problem, exacerbated by short tracks where rubbing fenders is a way of life. Arguing over the apex of Turn 2 is no different than arguing over the inside corner of home plate.

“How many times per week do you see a coach and umpire scream at each other?” Wells said. “That’s no different from Harvick. It’s common practice. It’s a part of people expressing how committed they are to a piece of real estate, whether it’s hockey, basketball, soccer, football, baseball or auto racing--but with auto racing, you can’t use a 3,400-pound object to prove your point.”

Because it’s two miles in length, California Speedway is less likely to have the serious bumping that precedes many postrace altercations or, more appropriately, confrontations--they rarely come to blows.

“Mostly it’s a lot of jawing and words, expletives, such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen, or Michael Waltrip and Lake Speed after an incident [years ago] on the track,” Hunter said. “All of our drivers have been mad at Jimmy Spencer at one time or another. But it’s all words, never any fighting.”

Craven, who won his first race last year at Martinsville and led 36 laps there this season, is one of the most recent drivers to be upset at Spencer: The two tangled twice at Martinsville. But Craven, 35, eschewed Harvick’s approach and had a low-key conversation with Spencer afterward expressing his disappointment.

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“I remember someone telling me when I first came into Winston Cup, it’s not always how you act, it’s often times how you react,” Craven said. “I’m not going anywhere, and [Spencer’s] going to stick around, and we’re both going to race together several more years. Racing rivalries are healthy, but how you react is important.

“I’m watching my 10-year-old girl play softball, and if she gets hit by a pitch, I don’t want her to charge the mound. How she handles herself is pretty important.”

It can also be important for sponsors. Instead of finishing in the top 10, or even winning at Martinsville, Craven finished 30th.

“We were proud of the way he handled himself,” said Molly Humbert, a Tide spokeswoman. “Ultimately for Tide, because of our family image, it really is important how our driver is viewed by fans. Ricky’s image is very important to Tide, and that’s why he’s such a great fit, because of the way he handles himself on and off the track.”

Whether it’s detergent, beer or auto products, sponsors also play a role in this dynamic. But they are unlikely to issue ultimatums if a driver fulfills the corporate agenda.

“We want someone who’s competitive on the track, who can interact with fans, media and executives, someone who’s comfortable in many environments, whether it’s a sit-down dinner or a hospitality tent,” said Marc Spiegel, spokesman for Miller Brewing, which has been associated with Wallace since 1989. “It’s important how they handle themselves in different emotional situations, but I also think you realize some things happen in the heat of the moment.

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“I think you have to look at the total picture and not look at incidents individually. You have to look at what your driver does for the sponsor and how they represent you as a whole.”

Sue Seaglund, manager of event marketing for GM Service and Parts Operations--Harvick’s sponsor--agreed. Arguing is a part of racing, and confrontations are going to happen again, but hitting a car in pit road or ramming another driver intentionally is unacceptable.

“I was there [for the Biffle incident], and as a sponsor, was it embarrassing and did I feel I had to hide, or have words with Kevin or Richard Childress [the team owner]? No,” she said. “That’s a piece of the exposure value of garnering this kind of attention.

“When it was over, Kevin left and had an appearance at his souvenir hauler--and he sold out.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NASCAR

WINSTON CUP

NAPA Auto Parts 500

* When: Friday, qualifying (FX, 5 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (Channel 11, 11:30 a.m.).

* Where: California Speedway (D-shaped oval, 2 miles, 14 degrees banking in turns), Fontana.

* Race distance: 500 miles, 250 laps.

BUSCH

GRAND NATIONAL

Auto Club 300

* When: Today, qualifying, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, race (Channel 11, 1 p.m.).

* Where: California Speedway.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 150 laps.

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