The 30 year-old driver and 2012 Sprint Cup Champion sat in an office chair inside the NASCAR hauler, just feet away from the southern end of the series’ garage facility. A sliding glass door and two police officers kept any unauthorized visitors from trying to talk to him.
Little more than 45 minutes had passed since the conclusion of the night’s race, but it had felt like many more, at least to me.
The Team Penske driver would later say that during his visit to hauler, where he met with NASCAR President Mike Helton and vice president of competition and racing development Robin Pemberton, behind a door with a reflective glass window, he “just explained what happened. I don’t think they had a full picture of what happened, so I just told them exactly everything that happened. It was a long story.”
A lot can happen in 45 minutes.
A lot can change from one end of a NASCAR hauler to the other.
When I entered the space between the haulers of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson the only thing on my mind was that I had just been spurned by the latter in an attempt at a post-race interview.
I had gone off after the six-time champion, all by my lonesome, to get a quote about his race. The rest of my media brethren had been in wait of and engulfed Junior as soon as he climbed from his car.
I had been told Johnson had been upset with crew chief Chad Knaus over pit strategy in the closing laps, a strategy that took him out of the top 5 and … well, I have no idea.
After spending the last seven laps on pit road, as soon as the race ended I had made for the garage area, stupidly not bothering to look at any of the many TVs on team’s pit boxes to see the final rundown.
I regrouped with Bob Pockrass, Sporting News’ lead NASCAR reporter, at the Dale Jr hauler. Bob told me what I should ask Johnson and I waited for his No. 48 to roll up.
I figured there’d be many fellow journalists wanting to get a word with Johnson about his diminished playoff chances.
Nope. Just me.
When I approached Johnson, introduced myself, shook his hand and asked about the ending of the race, I had no clue where he had finished. I still don’t.
Question #1: What happened at the end of the race?
Question #2: What did you try to do on the restart?
“I tried to go back. I just wanted to run last.”
Johnson hopped onto a waiting golf cart and sped away. Interview over.
At least he shook my hand.
I turned around and went back the way I came, in-between the cramped space of the two Hendrick Motorsports haulers.
Meanwhile, more noteworthy events had been transpiring.
I then emerged on the other side of haulers and stopped.
So had everyone else.
On my left, both the media scrum and Earnhardt were silent, staring off toward the backstretch where the track’s giant HD screen sits.
Johnson’s crew members, and really everyone in the area, had stopped and looked as well.
The only description of what we saw was chaos. The screen was filled with yellow as Matt Kenseth’s crew swarmed over the narrow space between Keselowski’s and Joey Logano’s haulers, just seven or eight down from where we all stood, trying to register what was happening.
A Johnson crew member directly in front of me looked away from the screen after a while.
“This is the time of year where everyone gets sad and angry,” he said.
Then came the moment were everyone massed around Junior and his car realized the night’s narrative had changed.
Everyone realized they needed to be shoving their microphones in someones else’s face.
As I hurried myself up toward the Penske area, I passed by Danica Patrick going the other way, another story forgotten in a matter of minutes. Patrick had just left the area where everyone else was flocking toward, where she had waited to confront Joey Logano after he had wrecked her on lap 247.
In fact, at 11:19 PM, a minute before the race officially ended, Sporting News’ NASCAR editor Jeff Owens sent me and Bob an email coordinating our post-race stories. Among them was Logano-Patrick, which he said “could blow up.”
Around 11:30 Keselowski’s car was pushed up to his hauler and most of us got our first indication as to what had happened on pit road, though as my tweet indicated, we had no idea it had been on pit road with Tony Stewart and not in the garage with Denny Hamlin or Kenseth.
Pretty soon after this my phone died (I had spent most of the second half of the race on pit road). I was in the dark about what anyone not present in the garage had seen on TV or was hearing.
This also kept me from being able tweet anything of note out.
This was also blessing. While most other reporters were scrambling around, either looking for the involved drivers to interview or watching replays of the inciting incidents on their phones, I was free to actually watch everything haphazardly play out and take notes instead of tweeting out anything that was purely speculative on my part.
I was attempting to take notes, and trying to jot down a timeline of events when Keselowski emerged for the first time from the Penske hauler. I never saw him during the time Dr. Jerry Punch got the first interview with him. The crowd around him was thicker than one in front of a Best Buy on Thanksgiving.
It was during this moment that I was politely lectured by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio host Claire Lang. Apparently, during a post-fight media scrum around Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s crew chief, I had asked a question of him during the time only television gets to. Like it was an unwritten rule.
I appreciated her taking the time to explain that to me in a heated situation, and I wasn’t going to argue with someone whose been doing this for a long time.
But in my head I was saying, “Whatever. Media rights hierarchies shouldn’t exist in a moment like this. This isn’t Victory Lane. It’s a fluid situation without a script.”
Somewhere along the way an either drunk or high Hispanic man in his 20s stumbled around the Kyle Busch hauler and began talking to a crew member. The next thing I knew, a police officer showed up.
“I’ve had to deal with you all night on pit road,” he said. “It’s time for you to leave.”
During most of this I’m trying to keep up with Bob, Matt Weaver of Popular Speed and Jeff Gluck of USA Today, three auto racing journalists I have the utmost respect for. They were in the same boat as me and that was comforting.
Matt told us about Keselowksi’s and Hamlin’s run-in with their cars in the actual garage structure.
At some point, Bob went back to the media center. I asked Jeff to text him that my phone was dead.
Things started to die down. A miniature media scrum formed around Joe Gibbs, the owner of Hamlin’s car and other participants.
One giant scrum came into existence in the center of the garage area around an ESPN reporter. We all watched a replay of the accident on the cool-down lap and on pit lane. There were some “ooohing” and “ahhing” and maybe even some amused chuckling.
About 10 minutes or so before midnight, a half hour after the race’s conclusion, I walked past two ESPN camera men who seemed about as confused as anyone.
“Why are we still here?” one asked the other.
“Because we’re still on ABC.”
This was after the beginning of the race hadn’t been seen by many viewers because of the late running Baylor-TCU football game.
After a couple of minutes it was just me, Matt and Jeff standing near the NASCAR hauler, waiting for … well, whoever was willing to talk.
We all saw Mike Helton in the hauler talking with two crew members from Kenseth’s team, giving their accounts of the evening. After they left, it was back to the waiting.
Then I noticed that Keselowski, the man everyone was wanting to talk to, was sitting in the hauler. He had somehow entered the hauler without anyone seeing his movements.
After his meeting behind close doors with Helton and Pemberton, Keselowski finally emerged at 12:10 AM, 50 minutes after the race’s conclusion.
The questions began.
“Just a long night. Tempers got hot on all sides,” Keselowksi said as I and at least five other journalists tried to keep from tripping over each other as we followed the driver, voice recorders in hand, to a waiting golf cart outside the media center.
“I don’t feel like I did anything necessarily wrong; not saying what I did was right, either. You know, they hit me and I hit ’em back. Maybe not the lesson you want to teach your kids, but this isn’t the schoolyard. This is serious stuff here and we’re all just trying to stand our ground.”
Keselowski “standing his ground” had led him to him sitting silently in an office chair, waiting to give his side of the story.
Meanwhile, 30 – 40 feet away was a different story, the one quickly forgotten about over the last 45 minutes. Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 car sat waiting to go through inspection, covered in confetti and beer bottles, with crew members laughing and joking about their own very long night.
Later, those of us that remained shuffled back to the media canter, where Harvick and his crew chief where just finishing up their winner’s press conference.
Sometime after Harvick left, I turned to MRN.com reporter Dustin Long.
“This is only my second race.”
Without looking up from his dual-laptop set up, Dustin replied:
“It’s all down hill from here.”