Fights and feuds boosting NASCAR's popularity

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Joey Logano and Tony Stewart gave people plenty to talk about after the Cup race at Fontana.

Joey Logano and Tony Stewart gave people plenty to talk about after the Cup race at Fontana.

It was a wild and out-of-control punch, a windmill that didn't come close to connecting with Joey Logano's jaw. That's the thing about fights on pit road in NASCAR: you really only get one chance to make a mess of someone's face, because a brawl will only last a few seconds before crews intervene and separate the fighters. Logano did throw a water bottle at Tony Stewart after Stewart's punch missed its target, but even that only glanced Stewart and fell harmlessly to the ground. As fights go, on a scale of one to ten, this was definitely a one.

But what if Stewart had gotten his wish? He wants NASCAR to be like hockey, a sport where teammates and referees will back away and let two brawling players have at it like gentlemen. I've been on the business end of receiving a playful punch from Stewart, and I can report that the guy packs impressive power. If NASCAR really wanted to attract more viewers, then the sanctioning body would tell the crews to let the drivers resolve their differences by seeing who falls to the ground first.

"Dumb little son-of-a-(expletive) runs us clear down to the infield," Stewart said after Logano blocked him on the final restart of Sunday's race at Fontana. "He wants to (expletive) about everybody else and he's the one who drives like a little (expletive). I'm going to bust his ass."

Will Stewart go after Logano when the Cup series resumes on April 7 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway? That storyline is one reason why the race is already one of NASCAR's most anticipated spring events in recent memory. Indeed, five weeks into the season, it's clear that the buzz is coming back to NASCAR because the close, compelling racing on the track has ramped up the intensity of the drivers and led to feuds like Stewart vs. Logano.

GALLERY: Memorable NASCAR brawls and blowups

Of course, there are other reasons why TV ratings, which have been falling for years, have been up in four of the five races of 2013. There's the curiosity about Danica Patrick, the Cup series rookie who nearly won the Daytona 500 (she became the first female to lead laps at Daytona before finishing eighth). Patrick has struggled since the 500 -- she hasn't finished higher than 26th in the last four races -- but there's little question that her mere presence in the series is bringing new fans to NASCAR.

NASCAR has also benefited from the continued emergence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted the sport's most popular driver for the last ten years. Earnhardt snapped his 143-race winless streak last summer, and this year he's been the most consistent driver in the sport, the only one to have finished in the top 10 in every race. What's more, Earnhardt has gained more positions on the track in the last ten percent of races (26) than any other driver in the series, which illustrates how focused and determined he is this year. The current points leader, he looks more and more like a driver capable of winning his first championship. And it's always good business for NASCAR when there's an Earnhardt running near the front.

But the biggest reason why NASCAR is surging right now is because of the high quality of the racing. Through five weeks, the new Gen-Six car has been an overwhelming success. There have been 147 green-flag passes for the lead, which is up from 122 through five races in 2012. Because of the aerodynamics of the car and the increased downforce due to the larger rear spoiler, the Gen-Six grips the track better than the older generation of car, and that has fostered more side-by-side racing and more passing. The race last Sunday at Fontana, featuring so many did-he-really-just-do-that? moments, was the most arresting NASCAR event I've seen in the last five years.

Yes, the season couldn't have started much better for NASCAR. Will this momentum spill into the summer? I think it will, especially if Tony Stewart ever gets the chance to land that punch.