Flipped car has NASCAR in a quandary

The idea seemed simple enough: NASCAR would let its drivers race a bit more aggressively and give the fans a better show.

But thanks to Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and some unexpected physics, that idea has become a lot more muddled.

NASCAR on Tuesday put Edwards on probation for the next three races but did not suspend the Sprint Cup Series driver for an apparent payback bump that sent Keselowski’s car airborne at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday.

How NASCAR chose to penalize Edwards was watched closely, because NASCAR said in January that it would ease rules to promote more exciting racing. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, said the purpose was to put racing “back in the hands of the drivers, and we will say, ‘Boys, have at it.’ ”

That tenet remains in place, but Edwards’ action in his No. 99 Ford “did go beyond” NASCAR’s intention and “there is a line you can cross, and we’ll step in to maintain law and order when we think that line is crossed,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said Tuesday.

NASCAR also “made it very clear to [Edwards] that these actions were not acceptable” and that “We believe the driver of the 99 understands our position,” Helton said.

Edwards appeared to intentionally bump the rear of Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge late in the race, which sent Keselowski’s car flying into the air. The car smashed on its hood but ultimately landed on its wheels and Keselowski was not injured.

The two had tangled earlier in the race, which sent Edwards’ car to the pits for lengthy repairs. Edwards and Keselowski also were involved in a spectacular wreck last year at the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway; Edwards’ car went airborne that time and crashed into a grandstand fence.

But to NASCAR, the brewing rivalry between Edwards and Keselowski took a backseat to a bigger, unexpected problem: Why did Keselowski’s car get airborne on the Atlanta track?

That event “to us is a much more serious topic” because an airborne car on the 1.5-mile Atlanta track — and many of NASCAR’s venues are that length — is something “which we typically don’t see,” Helton said. NASCAR technicians were studying the crash to find ways to limit that from happening again, he said.

It’s not clear whether the rear wing used on Cup cars played a role in lifting Keselowski’s car after it was bumped by Edwards. But to further complicate matters, NASCAR already has plans to replace the cars’ wings with spoilers sometime this spring.

Keselowski said minutes after the incident that it would be “interesting to see how NASCAR reacts” and that “if they’re going to allow people to intentionally wreck each other at tracks this fast, we will hurt someone either in the cars or in the grandstands.”

Edwards then said he didn’t want to see Keselowski’s car fly into the air but otherwise showed little remorse.

“Brad knows the deal between him and I,” Edwards said. “The scary part was that his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected. At the end of the day, we’re out here to race, and people have to have respect for one another.”