NASCAR delivers the wrong message

When NASCAR told drivers "have at it," they meant it. Vigilante justice has prevailed.

Carl Edwards has received a three-race probation for deliberately wrecking Brad Keselowski on Sunday at Atlanta, sending Keselowski's car upside down and airborne into the wall and catch fencing.

To call this penalty a slap on the wrist would be an insult to the pain of wrist slapping. This is no penalty whatsoever.

Carl got away with it, and the message to the other drivers in the garage is "So can you."

NASCAR just gave drivers the green light to go for it under almost any circumstance. Welcome to the Wild West, boys. Yeehah!

NASCAR president Mike Helton made the announcement Tuesday. Some people, including me, wanted to see NASCAR issue a one-race suspension to Edwards, knowing that was unlikely.

However, a major points penalty seemed logical for a retaliatory move by Edwards that could have seriously injured or killed a driver and spectators.

The NASCAR hierarchy felt differently.

"We reached the conclusion that Carl would receive probation for the next three races," Helton said. "I think Carl is aware of what that means."

Yes, he is. It means nothing. It means he can do whatever he wants without fear of consequence. It means that a premeditated act of driver rage on a dangerous high-speed oval isn't so bad after all.

Helton pointed out that NASCAR acted immediately and parked Edwards when the incident happened: "We did not allow him to continue the event."

Yes, how painful that must have been for a driver over 100 laps down at the end of the race. Edwards knew that was coming. He couldn't have cared less, as he showed by defiantly driving in the wrong direction down pit road.

A quick side note: My frustration has nothing to do with Edwards personally, a very likable guy who has been good for the sport. I would feel the same way if this was Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Burton or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's the act of intentionally endangering others at 190 mph that is worthy of condemnation, regardless of who administered it.

For the record, Keselowski took the high road Tuesday.

"I support NASCAR in the decision they communicated today," Keselowski said in a press release. "They are not in an enviable position when it comes to these matters, but they do an outstanding job.

"The unfortunate part about what happened on Sunday is that it has overshadowed a win by the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge [Kurt Busch, Keselowski's teammate] and an overall solid performance by Penske Racing at Atlanta. Hopefully we can move past this and get ready for Bristol."

Keselowski has no intention of enflaming the issue at this point, a smart move on his part.

Some people have suggested that no one would have cared if Keselowski's car had harmlessly skidded down the asphalt and not hit a thing. So let's take the opposite extreme.

How would you feel had Keselowski been seriously injured or killed? How would you feel if this payback moment had seriously injured or killed a fan?

The fact that Keselowski's car became airborne in a horrifying crash should be a warning of what can happen when drivers are allowed to take matters into their own hands at a track as dangerous as Atlanta.

Helton pointed out that the biggest issue was Keselowski's car getting airborne.

"That was a very serious issue," Helton said. "It's something we will take a look at quickly to figure out how to prevent that from happening."

Well, for starters, a meaningful penalty for deliberately wrecking a driver at almost 200 mph might help.

Cars getting airborne in an accident are one of the reasons NASCAR is eliminating the rear wing and going back to the rear spoiler.

That will help, but I have some news for you. Cars were getting airborne in crashes long before this wing was put on the rear deck lid.

Talking about how severe the accident was completely misses the point. The issue is whether one driver can wreck another driver under any conditions.

Whatever you think of Brad Keselowski, no driver deserves to be placed in harm's way of tragedy strictly because a rival wants to send him a message in a moment of rage.

NASCAR's new policy of looser rules enforcement is fine when we're talking about guys bumping and banging while racing for position. I didn't think it meant an uncontrolled-insanity-of-an-irresponsible-driver idea of justice.

"We made it very clear to [Edwards] that these actions were not acceptable," Helton said.

You did? That's like saying your mother made it clear to you not to take another cookie from the cookie jar by telling you to eat cake instead.

Helton said NASCAR officials met with Roger Penske, Keselowski's team owner, and Jack Roush, Edwards' boss.

"There has been an evolution in the [bad] relationship between these two drivers," Helton said. "Roger's biggest concern was that this was said and done and over with."

It probably is over with between Edwards and Keselowski. But NASCAR's leniency here means other drivers may think it's OK to crash each other anywhere at any time.

"Ultimately, drivers understand the seriousness of this topic," Helton said.

Why would they understand the seriousness of it when NASCAR's reaction is mild at best?

"There is a line you can cross," Helton said. "We'll step in to maintain law and order when we think the line is crossed."

Where is that line?

"We see it when we see it," Helton said.

They didn't see it Sunday. Based on the verdict Tuesday, no line was crossed when Edwards came back on the track over 100 laps down with the intent of wrecking a man heading for a top-5 finish.

"What we talked about is backing away from the grip we have on drivers," Helton said.

The grip? No one is even holding the rope.

Have at it, boys. The free-for-all is on. And where that leads may be a place no one wants to go.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.