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Danger very much alive in NASCAR after weak slap at Carl Edwards

In the end, NASCAR got exactly what it wanted: The re-injection of danger -- and the specter of death -- into its sport.

Let's review. This past offseason, NASCAR announced it would no longer vigorously police the on-track behavior of drivers. If one had a beef with another, well, NASCAR said it would essentially turn a blind eye to whatever a driver did to achieve retribution. As Robin Pemberton, the vice president of competition, said this winter, "We will put it back in the hands of drivers, and we will say, 'Boys, have at it.'"

This brings us to Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Early in the event, Carl Edwards, a four-time winner in Atlanta, was bumped from behind by Brad Keselowski, which sent Edwards into the wall, wiping out any chance Edwards had of taking the checkers.

Keselowski and Edwards have a history. Keselowski sent Edwards airborne at Talladega last fall as the two charged toward the checkered flag. Edwards' No. 99 Ford soared into the catch fence and parts flew off his car like shrapnel, right into the front-stretch grandstands. A young woman's jaw was broken.

On Sunday, Edwards sat in the garage for the better part of an hour while his car was being repaired. In other words, he had plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do when he returned to the track. Once he fired his engine, he had one objective in mind: Wreck Keselowski.

Mind you, Edwards was 156 laps down at this point and Keselowski was running in the top 10. But once Edwards reached Keselowski on the track, he spent over a lap trying to get to his rear bumper to spin him. Once he finally did, a worst-case scenario unfolded: After Edwards nudged Keselowski's No. 12 Dodge, the car went airborne. It was a harrowing wreck, as Keselowski smashed into the catch-fence, the kind of wreck that can seriously injure or kill drivers and fans. No one was hurt, but someone easily could have been.

So what does NASCAR do to Edwards? Does the governing body suspend him for a race, for two, for 10? Fine him $50,000 or $100,000? Put him on probation for the rest of the season? Certainly in years past NASCAR would have dropped the hammer on Edwards, but not this year.

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced he would be put on probation for three races. That's it. Probation for three races. In the garage, this isn't even considered a slap on the wrist. It's more like a love tap with a wink, wink.

Is NASCAR doing the right thing? Only time will tell. But this is certain: NASCAR has received more publicity this week because of the Edwards-Keselowski affair than the sport did when Danica Patrick was making her stock car debut at Daytona. That is the entire point of the "Boys, have it" directive.

NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance figures have been sagging for the better part of four years now, and the governing body realized it needed to do something to inject the sport with a shot of adrenaline. For better or worse, mission accomplished.

Many national NASCAR writers and commentators have already, via Twitter and other means, labeled NASCAR's decision on Tuesday as one of the worst the governing body has ever made. I wouldn't go that far, but if I were king of NASCAR for a day, I would have put Edwards on probation for at least two months, which would have sent a warning to the other drivers. As it stands, no stern warning was sent, which will green-light more payback justice on the track.

The biggest winner to emerge from Tuesday's announcement obviously was Edwards. I've spent a lot of time with him during the last two years, and I can report that as long as he's in NASCAR, he will never -- NEVER -- back down to another driver.

Want to know why? Well, unlike almost every other driver in the sport, Edwards doesn't live in Charlotte, N.C., and instead makes his home in Columbia, Mo. He doesn't hang out socially with any other drivers. Generally, he avoids living in the so-called "NASCAR bubble" as if it's infected with the plague. And the reason is he doesn't want to be friends with other drivers because he doesn't want anything to cloud his judgment on the track. No one in the sport really knows Carl Edwards, which is exactly the way he wants it.

"I fought very hard to make it here to the Cup series, and if people don't show me respect, I will stand up against that," Edwards told me last year. "I believe you should treat people the way you want to be treated. If I don't get that in return on the track, then we'll have a problem."

Keselowski learned the hard way on Sunday. But based on what NASCAR said on Tuesday, the Edwards-Keselowski story probably isn't over yet. Yes, the element of danger is very much alive and well in NASCAR. The governing body has made sure of that.

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