In a year when frustrated fans have begged for more cautions to tighten the field and add drama to races, Saturday night's race at Darlington Raceway saved NASCAR's season. The track once dismissed as past its prime delivered a tension-filled finish and a pit-road confrontation that had Ryan Newman questioning Kurt Busch's "chemical imbalance.''
Now fans have something to talk about instead of what's wrong with NASCAR. Let the discussions begin.
The question is if this week's All-Star Race can follow the buzz Darlington created. Expectations are high for an event often billed for its crashes, conflicts and crazy moments.
NASCAR needs another hot night of action to distance itself from those long stretches of green-flag racing that have bored some fans this season. Eight different winners in the first 11 races is something NASCAR can tout, but fans are likely to be lukewarm about that, especially supporters of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and others who remain winless.
Fans want action. They've craved it for weeks. While some have liked what they've seen, a vocal group has developed, encouraged by the sway they're starting to have.
NASCAR has shown that it's listening more to its fan base. Series officials have made some competition-related changes, in part because of the feedback they've received from fans. Also, Bristol Motor Speedway is altering its track after fans -- as it turned out, a minority of them -- complained about the racing and how there wasn't enough action.
Reasons vary why there have been so few cautions this year. Some cite drivers being more cautious after seeing how one extra point could have changed last year's championship, while others note that the aerodynamics of the cars make it harder for them to run closer together. Others say it's the tracks. It's likely a combination, but the main point is some in NASCAR nation aren't seeing what they want.
For as much as this is a sport, it's also entertainment. If people aren't entertained, they'll look elsewhere. While fan expectations might be unrealistic in some cases, series officials still must listen to what those watching from the grandstands or on TV are saying.
Fans again were restless during Saturday night's Southern 500 when it went caution-free the first 172 laps -- a distance longer than the entire previous night's Nationwide race there. Bored fans tweeted their frustrations and even a few suggested that Darlington should be changed to enhance the racing since Bristol is doing that.
Although it took a while, fans were rewarded with a green-white-checkered finish that allowed Hendrick Motorsports to finally celebrate its 200th Sprint Cup victory, a party the team had been waiting to have since October.
Before the checkered flag flew, some wondered if Jimmie Johnson had enough fuel to finish. He would. Johnson rocketed off the restart to beat Denny Hamlin for the victory.
Johnson's triumph, though, was overshadowed by other antics late in the race and after it.
Busch angered Newman's crew in the final laps when he blasted out of his pit stall and through Newman's stall. Newman's crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that Busch's action forced Newman's pit crew "to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.''
Then after the race, Busch ran into Newman's car on pit road. Their cars became tangled not far from where Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch had their dust-up after last year's Southern 500.
That incident was between the drivers. This time, Newman's crew arrived with gas man Andy Rueger, who played three years as an offensive lineman at Franklin (Ind.) College, charging through Busch's crew guys trying to get to Busch. He failed.
A hockey scrum ensued. A NASCAR official tried to keep Rueger away from Busch but ended up on the hood of Busch's car. Series officials said after the race they were continuing their investigation of the matter. Any penalties likely would be announced this week.
For as much as the brouhaha excited fans, Newman's comments afterward had them texting, tweeting and talking. Newman didn't hold back when asked what he thought of his former teammate.
"I'm not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials,'' Newman told SI.com. "And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.''
Newman, though, wasn't finished.
He said Busch claimed that he ran into Newman's car on pit road by accident when he was taking his helmet off. Newman said he thought that story "was a lie."
"I'm pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that's the first time that's happened to me," Newman said. "Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn't know how to deal with his anger.''
Asked if he was worried about Busch as a driver, Newman said: "Everybody has for the last 10 years. He's proven that. When you can't keep a job, it's pretty obvious.''
Busch was not available after the race.
What's obvious, though, is that NASCAR has a feud, and something for fans to discuss, dissect and devour.
This was the moment NASCAR needed. For as much as some enjoyed seeing car owner Rick Hendrick celebrate a milestone victory, controversy is what thrills many. The sport has lacked that this season. When cars don't run close together, there's little beating and banging. Thus, less conflict. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the season thus far involved Juan Pablo Montoya and a jet dryer at Daytona.
How enduring Saturday night's incident is will depend on what happens in the coming weeks. With a 600-mile race in two weeks, the sport needs this weekend's All-Star Race to be all that it is promoted to be.
How about that? An All-Star event that could mean something for a sport. The fans are ready. They've waited a long time for a night like Saturday night. Now, will they have something else to discuss after the All-Star Race or will they go back to questioning the racing?