CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The boys sure backed NASCAR into a corner on this one.
Determined to give drivers more leeway this season when it came to policing each other on the track, NASCAR opened the year with a relaxed "boys, have at it" attitude. It was interpreted to mean NASCAR would look the other way at a nudge here, a spin there, and all the retaliatory bumping and banging that goes on over a very long season.
No one could have predicted, though, that NASCAR's first true test would come a mere four races into the season following a frightening accident at Atlanta.
NASCAR on Monday found itself smack in the center of a dilemma over what to do with Carl Edwards, whose intentional wrecking of Brad Keselowski late in Sunday's race ignited a heated debate about just what's permitted under this new policy.
Emotions are high in almost every corner, and no decision NASCAR makes will satisfy everyone.
What first must be figured out, though, is what is everyone is so upset about?
Is it that Edwards returned to the track down 153 laps, intent on retaliating against Keselowski, and after trying for at least one full lap, finally succeeded with a deliberate nudge?
Is it that the high-speed contact sent Keselowski airborne in a spectacular flip that could have caused serious harm to Keselowski or any number of fans in the grandstands?
Or, maybe, the issue is that NASCAR wasn't properly prepared to deal with the ramifications of allowing drivers free rein on the race track.
All three are valid arguments.
First up is Edwards, who is on a long list of drivers who have been on the losing end of Keselowski's aggressive charge into NASCAR's top level. Although Denny Hamlin had the most public feud with Keselowski, there is no shortage of top-name drivers who privately pledged they'd exact their revenge this season.
Edwards' most obvious run-in with Keselowski was on the final lap of last April's race at Talladega, where Keselowski's nudge sent Edwards flying into the fence in a wreck that some may argue was more frightening than Atlanta. But the two race against each other weekly in two series, and Edwards' hinted at a far deeper history with the unapologetic Keselowski.
So when early contact between the two knocked Edwards out Sunday, at a track where he's won four times in two series, he was ready for revenge. He 100 percent deliberately wrecked Keselowski and has so far been rather unrepentant about his action.
Edwards, who was immediately parked for his actions, had little to say after a postrace meeting with NASCAR. But he minced no words in a Facebook posting late Sunday night.
"My options," he wrote, "Considering that Brad wrecks me with no regard for anyones safety or hard work, should I: A-Keep letting him wreck me? B-Confront him after the race? C-Wait til bristol and collect other cars? or D-Take care of it now?
"I want to be clear that I was surprised at his flight and very relieved when he walked away. Every person has to decide what code they want to live by and hopefully this explains mine."
Opinions were split, though, perhaps fueled by the severity of Keselowski's crash.
There was no similar outrage when Hamlin fulfilled his promise of payback on Keselowski in last year's Nationwide Series finale at Homestead. And it sure seemed that the cheers far outweighed the jeers when Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart played retaliatory bumper-cars a day later.
But because Keselowski went airborne, bounced hood-first off the retaining wall, and had to climb from a cockpit so crumpled it looked more like an accordion than a car, there's a been cry for NASCAR to issue serious sanctions against Edwards.
Fans want him suspended, and many analysts have agreed. Even Keselowski seemed to taunt NASCAR into cracking down on Edwards.
"It'll be interesting to see how NASCAR reacts to it," he said after the wreck. "They have the ball. If they're going to allow people to intentionally wreck each other at tracks this fast, we will hurt someone either in the cars or the grandstands. It's not cool to intentionally wreck someone at 195 mph."
It's left NASCAR to sift through the evidence. On one hand, this is no different than a traffic infraction: run a red light and nothing happens, you maybe get a ticket. Run a red light and kill someone, now you're looking at vehicular homicide.
So now NASCAR plays judge, jury and executioner, and its decision will reverberate through the rest of the season.
A severe punishment against Edwards is akin to a death sentence on the "have at it" attitude. If the first driver who actually "had at it" is hit with a stiff penalty, then other drivers won't ever dare test the limits.
A significant fine, points deduction or probation will likely back Edwards into a conservative mode that could alter the way he races the rest of the year.
And no action at all, aside from infuriating an enraged mass of fans, well, that could promote repeat behavior from Edwards or others.
Whatever NASCAR decides won't satisfy everyone, but there are some guarantees going forward.
Keselowski, for one, got the message loud and clear that some rival drivers have been trying to deliver for a while now, and he's likely going to think twice before bulldozing his way through a pack of traffic.
Edwards, after a night to sleep on it, probably wishes he'd done things a little differently and will likely give deeper thought to how he exacts his revenge in the future.
And NASCAR? Well, NASCAR knows for sure it needs a quick handbook on how to deal with these issues.
Nobody wants to see the Wild West re-enacted on the track every weekend, but "boys, have at it" was a well-intentioned idea that doesn't deserve to be scrapped because one incident took everyone — including Edwards — by surprise.