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Next tantrum usually just around the corner
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HAMPTON, Ga.  — Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth have smoothed things over after their helmet-throwing dustup.

Not to worry.

In NASCAR, the next tantrum is usually just around the turn.

Emotions certainly will be running high Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the next-to-last race before the Chase for the championship begins. Several top drivers — including Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon — are battling just to get into the playoff, so they'll be on edge during the AdvoCare 500, knowing any major incident could ruin their hopes.

"If you've been in racing long enough, you're going to have some type of disagreement with pretty much everybody you're competitive with on the track," Kenseth said. "Some of that stuff is natural."

While NASCAR doesn't give the competitors carte blanche to do whatever they want, Stewart wasn't fined for tossing his helmet at Kenseth after a crash at Bristol last weekend. That was telling. The governing body has come back around to the idea of letting drivers show their emotions and try to work out any problems among themselves, which, of course, goes all the way back to the infamous 1979 incident in the Daytona 500 that essentially propelled the good ol' boys into the national spotlight.

Battling for the lead on the final lap, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough smacked each other three times before their cars spun into the muddy infield, allowing Richard Petty to come around for the victory. While the King celebrated, Allison and Yarborough hopped out of their cars and got into a brawl, joined by Allison's brother, Bobby, who pulled over to join the melee on Donnie's behalf.

"I remember watching that and thinking, 'How will they ever top this?'" comedian and NASCAR fan Jeff Foxworthy recalled. "Two brothers getting out and getting into a fight on the last lap! That's one of the greatest sporting moments in history to this day."

While NASCAR certainly frowns on fisticuffs, it's impossible to keep tempers from flaring in a sport where the competitors put their lives on the line every time they get behind the wheel.

And, seriously, why would they want to rein in those emotions?

To plenty of fans, including Foxworthy, that's what they love about the sport.

"Why does everybody like reality TV?" five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson asked rhetorically. "It's kind of in the same vein. People like watching train wrecks. People like watching controversy. Whatever that is, we're all intrigued. We love to be a voyeur and check it out. Most of us don't like being in that situation, but it sure is fun to watch."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has another theory.

"I'm sure everybody watching the race has somebody whose neck they would like to wring," he said. "Maybe they live vicariously through our emotions in some way. There's probably a co-worker or two who you wouldn't mind running a fist into their face."

Earnhardt is no different when he's watching a football game.

"I get into the emotional side of it when somebody gets upset or when a player gets real physical or plays really hard," Junior said. "That's what I like to see, and I think our fans like to see that out of the drivers. We're inside those cars most of the time. We're limited in what you can see and what we can do. But when somebody gets outside the car and does something like Tony did, the fans really connect to that emotion."

The three-time NASCAR champion lost his infamous temper after a bump from Kenseth caused him to wreck as they were racing for the lead at Bristol. Before making his mandatory trip to the care center, Stewart waited on the track for Kenseth to pass by on pit road, and he used both hands to heave his helmet directly at the front grill of Kenseth's car.

A few days later, Stewart was able to joke about the whole affair. He said he might take some of his father's old helmets into his yard to work on his technique, and added that he would only run over Kenseth "if I need to."

During the first day of practice at Atlanta, the two adversaries chatted amiably in the garage.

Apparently, all is good.

Until the next time.

"The helmet toss was cool," Kenseth said. "I just wish he had not tossed it at me. That means he was upset with me."

Heading into Atlanta, Kenseth is among four drivers who have clinched their spot in the 10-race playoff, joined by Johnson, Earnhardt and Greg Biffle. Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski are poised to get in as soon as Sunday night.

But Edwards, who heartbreakingly lost the championship to Stewart a year ago in the final race on a tiebreaker, likely needs to win in Atlanta or next week at Richmond to clinch a wild-card spot. Busch is in, for now, but he could get knocked out if another of the contenders wins. Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, also is in danger of missing the Chase.

"We want it bad," Gordon said.

In other words, there's plenty of potential for another angry confrontation.

"Everybody wants to see good racing," Kenseth said. "But whether they'll admit it or not, they like to see the rest of it, too — when guys go over the edge. That's been part of the sport for a lot of years. "

And many years to come.